Nate Zelazo

Astronautics' Founder & Chairman Emeritus Passes

Nate Zelazo

Astronautics Corporation of America announces that its founder and chairman emeritus Nathaniel “Nate” Zelazo passed away on November 22 in Milwaukee at the age of 100.  

Nate Zelazo and Norma Paige, brother and sister, founded the Milwaukee-headquartered aerospace company nearly sixty years ago in May 1959. Under their leadership, the company grew from a one-room storefront to a global corporation providing key avionics and connectivity systems to the aerospace industry’s largest original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). The company includes subsidiary Kearfott Corporation, headquartered in New Jersey and acquired in 1988.

Astronautics was Nate’s true passion. He served as the company’s president from 1959 to 1984; he then retired and became its CEO. He retired as CEO at the end of 2000 and became its chairman emeritus. He was called back from retirement in 2004 to become CEO of Astronautics’ subsidiary, Kearfott Guidance and Navigation Corporation, now Kearfott Corporation, serving there for approximately three years. After retiring in 2007 and through to 2016, Nate continued to serve on the board of directors for both corporations and as a consultant to the business.  

Nate was fond of saying that he never worked for the “bottom line.”  Rather, he worked to push the boundaries of technology with state-of-the-art innovations in avionics and space — and the rest followed. 

Astronautics literally began with rocket science. In 1959, Nate became aware of a program the USAF was sponsoring, prior to NASA, to optimize and conserve fuel in a manned space vehicle going to the moon and back. He thought it would be the perfect first project for his new company: equations calculating the rate at which the space vehicle would consume fuel. Astronautics worked with Rosemount Aeronautical Laboratories at the University of Minnesota and with Nate’s professors at the University of Wisconsin (UW). Meanwhile, Attorney Norma Paige was busy creating their new company in Wisconsin: Astronautics.

Astronautics continued to work with the UW on other space-related projects, including recording sensor data on NASA’s TIROS weather satellites, and then developing a gyro-controlled platform and star tracker for the X-15 that photographed the first stars from outside the Earth’s atmosphere.  

However, the company’s mainstay throughout the 1960s was developing electromechanical primary flight instruments — HSIs, ADIs, BDHIs — for fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, mainly on military aircraft used around the world. 

Today, Astronautics designs and manufacturers avionics and connectivity systems for commercial and military aircraft. Key customers are aerospace OEMs including, Airbus and Boeing. The company provides its electronic flight bag (BP5 EFB) as standard-fit equipment on all Boeing production 787s and its air-ground communications system (AGCS) as a forward-fit solution for Airbus Helicopters. Astronautics’ Network Server System (NSS) connects multiple systems on the Airbus A400M transport and enabled the company to develop a cybersecurity expertise, which ultimately led to current work with the FAA ASISP on developing a methodology for assessing cyber threats.

A public memorial service, honoring Nate’s life and accomplishments, will be held on Wednesday, November 28 at 2 p.m. at Congregation Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun, River Hills, WI.  Memorial gifts in Nate’s honor may be made to the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) and Marquette University (MU) Opus College of Engineering.

Background on Nate Zelazo

Education: Nate was born in Lomza, Poland in September of 1918. He came to New York with his mother and younger sister Norma in 1928 at the age of ten, joining his father who was already working there. Upon arriving, Nate did not speak a word of English. His teachers noticed his quick wit and keen intelligence, and encouraged him to attend the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, a New York City scientific-specialty school. He then earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering from City College of New York; followed by a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the UW; and three honorary doctorates from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), MU, and MSOE. Nate credited his UW professors as being the reason he and Norma founded Astronautics in Wisconsin. They impressed upon him how important it was to keep technology in the state.

Nate worked a number of jobs to pay for his college textbooks and other academic expenses, including selling ice cream, fruits, and vegetables from a horse-drawn cart at a local park in New York City and working as a farm laborer in the countryside. When retelling his ice cream peddler’s story, he would explain that he was temporarily jailed for selling without a license — he would joke that all of his assets melted! 

Work Experience: When World War II began, Nate was working on his master’s degree at Columbia University. He put his studies on hold in order to design and develop radar systems for the US Navy. After the war, he continued working on engineering and electronics projects for the Navy and the Department of Defense. Nate then transitioned into the private sector as a vice president for Ketay Instrument Corporation from 1952 to 1954; he then joined the Avionics Division of the John Oster Manufacturing Company in Racine, WI where he led its research & development efforts until the founding of Astronautics in 1959. 

Many of those who worked with Nate at Oster followed him to Astronautics. Long-term Astronautics employees, of which there are many (including 2nd and 3rd generation), were exceedingly loyal to both Nate and Norma. Nate often visited the production line where he would sit side-by-side with the technicians asking them about their work. He challenged employees to achieve more than they thought they could.

Hobbies: Nate was an avid sailor, skier, and classical-music lover. His sailboat, the Astronut, regularly cruised the Milwaukee harbor. Astronautics’ customers worldwide often tell stories of sailing with Nate on Lake Michigan—it made a lasting impression.

Community: Nate was involved with many community-minded activities, including but not limited to: donating the building for the Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts to UWM in his late wife’s honor. He served on the Greater Milwaukee Committee, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, and the MSOE Board of Regents. He had many connections with the Milwaukee-area universities: MSOE, MU, and UWM.  His awards were numerous, with one of the most recent being induction into the Wisconsin Business Hall of Fame in 2014, sponsored by Junior Achievement of Wisconsin. He was a lifetime member of the American Society of Naval Engineers and the Navy League of the United States.


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