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A Man for Any Season

The name of the Terry S. Duncan Space Technology Research Laboratory is unveiled for the first time at the Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., Oct. 18, 2019. The building was renamed in honor of the late Terry S. Duncan and his contributions to the laboratory. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman First Class Ireland Summers)

The name of the Terry S. Duncan Space Technology Research Laboratory is unveiled for the first time at the Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., Oct. 18, 2019. The building was renamed in honor of the late Terry S. Duncan and his contributions to the laboratory. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman First Class Ireland Summers)

Terry S. Duncan’s family

Terry S. Duncan’s family following the Air Force Research Laboratory’s dedication ceremony on Oct. 18 to rename AFRL’s Telescope and Atmosphere Compensation Laboratory in memory of Terry S. Duncan. From left to right: children Katy, Joseph, Grace and Michael Duncan, mother Dean Duncan, brother Jim Duncan and father Terry Duncan. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

Terry S. Duncan

Terry S. Duncan on receiving the 2003 Arthur S. Flemming Award for Applied Science at the awards ceremony held in Washington D.C. The Flemming Awards program was created to single out and celebrate the achievements of unique federal employees who went beyond what was expected to make a major impact in society. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

This story honors the memory of Terry S. Duncan.

On Oct. 18, the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M. held a ceremony to rename the Telescope and Atmosphere Compensation Laboratory (TACLab) at AFRL’s Starfire Optical Range (SOR) to the Terry S. Duncan Space Technology and Research Laboratory.  In the early 2000s, Duncan led the design and project proposal for the TACLab. He was the catalyst in the fast growth of the research taking place at the SOR.

Duncan was born on Oct. 15, 1970 in the small town of Cadiz, Kentucky to Terry and Dean Duncan.  He spent the first 18 years of his life in Cadiz and graduated in 1988 as valedictorian of Trigg County High School.

In 1988, Duncan entered the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado where he excelled as a cadet and student.  He received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force in 1992.  Duncan achieved the distinction of graduating 8th in his class of 1,081 cadets, earning him the title of distinguished graduate.

While at the Air Force Academy he met his future wife Mary Jo Drozdowski, a fellow cadet and electrical engineer.

Following graduation, Duncan was assigned to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Concurrently, on a NASA Fellowship he completed a Master of Science Degree in Computer Science at George Washington University and was recognized as a distinguished graduate with highest honors.

Duncan received an assignment to the Air Force Research Laboratory (then the Phillips Laboratory) at Kirtland Air Force Base in 1993.  He and Mary Jo were now married and both had moved up in rank to first lieutenant.

John Anderson, Leidos Corporation senior program manager, who spoke at the dedication ceremony was the Space Electro-Optics division chief at the time. He said when Duncan interviewed with them the SOR team knew immediately they had to have him.

AFRL senior scientist and renowned adaptive optics expert, Dr. Robert Fugate captivated the gathering that included Duncan’s children, parents, and brother with a review of Duncan’s life. He talked about a man of exceptional intellect, leadership and humor -- a man whose passion for problem solving and being part of a team enabled great change. A man well-loved and respected.

“I told Terry on first meeting him we expected great things and he didn’t disappoint,” said Fugate. “In less than 13 years after he arrived at the lab, Terry was appointed chief of the Space Electro-Optics division—responsible for 180 people and a $45 million annual budget.” 

“Terry was unique in many ways – he was a sponge for responsibility and did any job assigned with style and gusto,” said Fugate. “He was extremely well read and could contribute constructively on any subject. He was a leader, a communicator, a diplomat and negotiator. In my 15 years of working with Terry, I never once saw him get angry even in the some of the most frustrating situations. He was humble and had the utmost respect for the opinion of others.”

In 1996 after eight years in military uniform, Duncan separated from the Air Force as a captain and entered into the federal civil service system.  Mary Jo also departed the Air Force and took a job as an electrical and software engineer with Orbital ATK.

Two years after becoming the SOR division chief, Duncan at the age of 38, entered the Senior Executive Service (SES) as Director of Communications and Network programs in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon. The promotion making him one of the youngest SES appointments ever.

In 2011, Duncan accepted the position of Director of Communications at the National Reconnaissance Office and served in that position until his passing on June 17, 2017.  At the time of his death, Duncan was living in Vienna, Virginia, and he and Mary Jo had become the proud parents of four children -- Katy, Grace, Joseph, and Michael.

Mary Jo was to die a year later – another heartbreaking loss for family, friends and colleagues.

“Terry was a friend of mine and a colleague and he’s the reason I’m standing here as an SES,” said AFRL Directed Energy Director Dr. Kelly Hammett. “Terry recruited me to replace him as chief engineer at the SOR. He was amazing, an exquisite engineer. Terry left an incredible legacy and we must remember his work and sacrifice for national security. Dedicating this building to Terry is one way we will remember.”