By Roxann Elliott
It’s not brain surgery, but it is rocket science. Bill Possel, director of mission operations and data systems at CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), is quick to point out that he’s not unusually brilliant.
That said, he holds a master’s degree in engineering physics and devoted his 27-year Air Force career to the operation of satellites and launch vehicles, attaining the rank of colonel before taking up his current post in 2006.
Possel, the son of German immigrants, grew up in Dayton, Ohio during the era of NASA’s monumental Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. Ohio had no shortage of local role models from John Glenn’s first orbital flight to Neil Armstrong’s “small step.” All told, 24 astronauts in the NASA program were Ohio natives; speaking, perhaps, to the immeasurable impact of relatable heroes.
“I was always interested in the space program growing up and (my) parents bought me a little telescope,” Possel related over a small, round table in his office at LASP. “And so I would go outside and stare at the stars until they had to drag me back in and make me go to bed.”
That dogged fascination with space compelled Possel to pursue a career in Air Force space programs. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Cincinnati while in ROTC and proceeded to earn his master’s in engineering physics from the Air Force Institute of Technology.
From there, he became mission director for an overseas Air Force ground station and later served as production manager on the Titan IV launch vehicle and program director for the Atlas III and Delta II rockets. Eventually, he discovered LASP.
“I have a friend that lived across the street and we were both in the Air Force,” Possel said. “And he said, ‘Hey, there’s this CU lab that’s across the street from where I live, why don’t we go visit it?’ And I had a chance to come here while still in the Air Force, and it completely blew me away.”
In September of 2006, Possel became director of mission operations and data systems at LASP. This department employs around 100 people, approximately half of whom are students. They work alongside the science and engineering arms of LASP by directing spacecraft in their movements and processing the incoming data.
“When the science data comes from the satellites, we work with the scientists kind of hand-in-glove,” Possel explains, “and process that data, analyze it, have them look at it and then say, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect to see that.’ Cause that’s real science, then.”
Additionally, while Lockheed Martin controls the Mars Atmospheric and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft, LASP is working with Berkeley and the Goddard Space Flight Center to operate MAVEN’s instruments and collect data.
MAVEN’s official scientific mission commences in November, but a rare astronomical event will give the team an opportunity to test the on-board instruments. MAVEN’s arrival at Mars coincides with Siding Spring, a renegade comet that will do a flyby of Mars on October 19.
“That’s going to be really exciting science that was never intended when we designed MAVEN,” Possel said. “It just happens to be at the right time with the right instruments. That they can look at this comet and also look at what happens when these dust particles from this comet’s tail start hitting the atmosphere of Mars.”
When asked what his 10-year-old self would think of his career, Possel insists, “I would not believe it; I could not believe it.”
The job is about more than firing nifty toys into space and making novel discoveries, however. Possel takes a keen interest in LASP’s overriding objective to provide a hands-on learning experience to students.
“In my Air Force career it’s always been, you know, you have to be a highly trained person, not a student, doing this work. Opportunities for students to be involved in, again, the building instruments, doing the software for them, operating them, data analysis, was just incredible. Never knew anything like that existed.”
That interest proves invaluable to students like Matt Muszynski, an undergraduate earning his second bachelor’s in astrophysics while working as a command controller at LASP.
“He’s really interested in bringing in his industry contacts to help us, the students, in particular,” Muszynski noted. “People to kind of lecture about, you know, ‘What have I done with my career? What can you do if you want to take a track like this.’”
Insight such as this is invaluable to students trying to narrow their field of interest. This may be doubly true for Muszynski, who grew up watching shuttle launches from his front yard in Florida, and whose first degree was in classical music.
“Aerospace is a small industry compared to some, but it’s huge compared to tuba playing.”
Possel’s lengthy career also allows him to confer advice and insights to graduating students. Shivali Bidaiah earned her bachelor’s in aerospace engineering from CU Boulder and worked as a command controller at LASP for two years. Now, she’s a systems engineer for Northrop Grumman working on the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS).
“Bill was a great mentor as I navigated my options out there,” Bidaiah said. “He was a valuable resource in helping me evaluate different employment opportunities, networking, resume critique, you name it.”
Today, Bidaiah is pursuing a master’s in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins, and she and Possel have stayed in touch as she manages her career and plans her future.
“Bill is an exceptional leader,” Bidaiah affirmed. “He is incredibly humble, down to earth, and has a unique ability to develop and form strong teams. I valued that Bill communicated his vision with the team he led on a regular basis and most of all, he was passionate about what he did.”
Possel’s career is a singular example of how that fire drives research and exploration. He notes that the sciences, including physics and astronomy, take far more enthusiasm, collaboration, and hard work than pure genius.
“I’m not the brightest, but I have a passion for doing this, and I love doing this.”
In general, it’s been our ability here at LASP to take a spacecraft that has significant technical problems and figure out a way to keep it going, to keep the science going and completely – when people think that’s the end of the mission, can’t do anything more with it, and we have smart people, both staff and students, that come up with “Hey, have you thought about doing it this way?” and “Let’s – let’s try this way,” and then all of a sudden it works and you get back to doing science.
And it’s a very – it’s a great feeling because people put their lives into building these satellites and building these instruments and it takes years to do it. And once it’s up there, you know, you can’t bring it back down to fix it. You’ve got to have smart people on the ground to kind of figure out how to do it. I’m very proud of that.
And also, obviously Kepler. Kepler has been changing the textbooks of how we understand planet formation. The number of planets we’ve found out there – you know, we always kind of thought there were planets out there, but Kepler has proven that half the stars that you look at when you look out into the night sky, half of them probably have planets going around them. The number of planets in our galaxy is huge if you extrapolate the Kepler numbers. And here’s LASP; CU has been part of keeping that mission, doing that mission, and they couldn’t have found the planets without LASP.