Dr. E. Glenn Lightsey joined the GT
Last fall, when Dr. E. Glenn Lightsey's Texas research team gathered to watch the launch of its fourth satellite since 2009, they witnessed a stunning first: the Antares rocket exploded, destroying the valuable cargo they’d spent 18 months building.
For Lightsey, as an aerospace engineer, it was something of an outlier. He has contributed to many space missions during his career at NASA and as the founder of UT-Austin’s Texas Spacecraft Lab. Three previous satellites from the lab had executed successfully.
But for Lightsey, as a teacher, it was a valuable opportunity to drive home some hard lessons about aerospace engineering.
Anyone who knows Lightsey knows how he took it.
“The students and I were back in the lab the next day, reviewing data and planning the next mission. I’m very proud of them.”
Prof. E. Glenn Lightsey with one of the students from UT-Austin's Texas Space Lab, where he has already launched several satellites. Photo courtesy of UT Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Department
On January 2, 2015, Lightsey joined the faculty of the Georgia Tech School of Aerospace Engineering. Along with an unparalleled resume for satellite launch and technology development, he brought a teaching philosophy that will feel right at home at GT-AE:
“Students in aerospace engineering want to solve real problems and participate in flight projects. They accept that there’s a risk of catastrophic failure, like this one, and they work all the harder to avoid it.”
For the most part, his students do. In addition to its previous launches, Lightsey's research group will be launching two more satellites in the next 18 months. A third collaboration with JPL will see a propulsion system designed by Lightsey’s team get launched into interplanetary space sometime next year.
“That could be the first cubesat to go beyond Earth’s orbit,” said Lightsey from his newly established office in Georgia Tech’s Montgomery Knight Building. “In the future, we should be seeing cubesats landing on other planets. Maybe sooner than you'd expect.”
Dr. E. Glenn Lightsey with one of his new GT-AE colleagues, Dr. Mitchell Walker.
At Georgia Tech, Lightsey, an expert in space technology, will continue the work he began at UT Austin: research on small satellite design, space flight hardware, suborbital rockets, and balloon payloads. Collaborating with colleagues from the Space System Design Lab, he looks forward to charting new territory. And, yes, launching more satellites.
“We fly missions and they are exciting, but that’s not the endpoint. It’s the motivation for what we do,” he said.
“Each mission drives technology – things you need to make it happen. And that leads to more research because you are always looking for better ways to employ technology - new technologies - on the next mission.”
Lightsey’s perspective on the matter was shaped, to some degree, by his 13-year stint at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
“We had two or three space missions happening each year, so every engineer was involved in some phase of the mission life cycle,” he said.
“I wasn’t directly involved in each of them, but I was able to see first-hand how engineers solved the unique problems that each mission had.”
The solutions to those problems have inevitably spawned new capabilities, many of which Lightsey has capitalized on. For instance, the downsizing of satellites – the rise of nano-satellites – has not only made it cheaper to launch; it has also greatly expanded data collection capabilities.
“The cost to send something into space is similar to the cost of gold: more than $10,000 per kilogram,” he said.
“That’s the economic proposition we’re dealing with, so when you reduce the size of your satellites by an order of magnitude, you are going to find it’s a lot cheaper to get to space. And then you find that you can afford to build a formation of satellites – something that can perform tasks from multiple locations at the same time. That’s enormously helpful for things like predicting the weather, where a denser collection of instruments can take massive amounts of measurements and create far more realistic models.”
As enthused as he is about the myriad research possibilities, Lightsey never forgets the economic limitations. Funding for space research is always vulnerable to budget retractions. He remains not only optimistic, but a little bullish about the future of aerospace research.
“It used to be that you had to be a government or one of a small number of companies to even think about building a satellite, but now you don’t have to be part of that club. As soon as there’s an economic engine behind space development, new innovations can happen. And they are happening now.”
The economic boon is not restricted to headline-grabbing companies, he said.
“It took us decades and billions of dollars to bring GPS technology into everyday use, but the pace is changing. With small sats, even if the sensors are individually simple devices, they can provide services that, at a certain price point, could find a market that will make them economically feasible – like shipping companies that want to get real-time video from space to monitor their cargoes, and businesses that want to get real-time usage information on their parking lots. Individuals might not be using this today, but the market is developing.”
Lightsey knows a thing or two about developing markets. While in Texas he started and sold a satellite instrumentation company. That experience has given him a new perspective on the discipline – one that he thinks the next generation of aerospace students will readily adopt.
“The way I look at aerospace engineering is that it’s a pie with three slices,” he said.
“There’s government, academia, and commercial space. To really understand the discipline you need to appreciate all three sectors. They each play a part in how aerospace engineering works as an industry.”
With a background that spans all three areas, Glenn Lightsey will be bringing GT-AE the full package.
Find out more about Dr. E. Glenn Lightsey