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Center Snapshot: Stephen Horan
09.02.11
 
Snapshot: Stephen Horan. Image above: Stephen Horan with an "envelope" for a small satellite in his laboratory in Building 1299 at NASA Langley. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

In a small laboratory down the hall from his office in Building 1299, Stephen Horan shows an aluminum-latticed box, about big enough to hold a 10-gallon hat, and said that it's designed to carry instruments for a science experiment into space.

Or a science measurement.

Or ... to be determined.

It's the way small satellites work, said Horan, who has been at NASA Langley for two years after spending 22 years on the faculty, including 4 years as a department head at New Mexico State University.

First comes the package, then comes the content.

"These are the envelopes that we have to fit in," said Horan. "So how do we structure our experiments so that they fit into the envelope?"

The thinking is a departure from what brought Horan to Langley. He and wife Sheila were looking for a way to get back to the East Coast, to be nearer their parents in Pennsylvania and Maryland, when a job opened on CLARREO, the giant-scoped, $1 billion mission that was to be headed by Langley.

Horan had worked with NASA at the White Sands Ground Terminal and on various research projects at New Mexico State. He also had developed the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, which put him in frequent contact with NASA headquarters and with other states' Space Grant offices, including that led by Mary Sandy in Hampton.

He served two years as chair of the National Council of Space Grant Directors.

The fit at Langley seemed a natural one, and Sheila – also an electrical engineer – got a post at Old Dominion while seeking one in industry.

But then CLARREO was a victim of budget cuts, leaving Horan with time to do something similar to what he had done at New Mexico State: Look for missions for small satellites that Langley could fill.

He started a Small Satellite Working Group that will try to get Langley in the small satellite business. This group is open to others interested in small satellite development.

"A lot of the things I've done since I've been here have been situations of doing full time what I used to do part time on research grants and in teaching," Horan said of his work on CLARREO and in support of organizations seeking grants.

"Writing up requirements definitions for the small satellites we used to do for the Air Force at New Mexico State, we're doing here."

In many ways, working at a research university and a research center have parallels. You do research. You seek funding for that research. Sometimes the funding goes away.

"I had a multiyear grant from NASA to do communications work (while at New Mexico State), and it got cut after a year," Horan said. "The state legislature funds universities, and when that money gets cut, the effect rolls downhill.

"I've been to this rodeo before."

He went west to become an astronomer, then learned that engineering paid better and so Horan took his doctorate in electrical engineering in Las Cruces. Mixing teaching and research, he tried to do what a dean told him.

"He said 'when you get to be a full professor, you ought to have something you can point to and say, "if it wasn't for me, that wouldn't be there," ' " Horan said. "So I worked to build up a couple of things."

One was the New Mexico Space Grant. Another was a telemetry laboratory. The university became a magnet for telemetry work.

And then there were the small satellites. They tend to lure single-use, limited-term missions, and people who build them have to foster an acceptance of sorts. "These are secondary payloads, which means you have to go bum a ride from somebody," Horan said. "You have to do it on a non-interference basis. You're not the primary.

"You can't start out with a clean sheet of paper and just put anything anywhere. You have to know up front where it's going to fit."

Horan and the group are awaiting a NASA call for proposals for missions with the idea that it could lead to a future for the center in the field.

He also spends time playing guitar in church, taking digital photographs and trying to get his amateur radio station working. And Horan seeks a site with clear skies to go back to his telescope. Astronomy, which was going to be a career, has become an avocation, but the clouds of Southeastern Virginia make star-gazing more difficult than in the clear nights of the New Mexico desert.

"I think I've found a couple of sites up Route 17, up from Gloucester," he said.

Horan wants to use one of those sites to take a long-distance look at a small satellite from Langley. In the laboratory down the hall in Building 1299, an envelope is ready.

 
 
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