Alumni Profile • Michael Van Woerkom '95
This is rocket science

On September 8, when the Genesis satellite tumbled out of control during its return to earth and crashed into the Utah desert, Michael VanWoerkom ’95 had a few moments of panic. As the capsule’s structure design lead, he had been responsible for balancing the 450-pound craft to within one-tenth of an inch of its center. The craft’s tumbling first looked like a balance failure. Later, analysis revealed the error to be in the parachute release, meaning that Van Woerkom’s design worked properly. And despite the satellite’s hard landing, the Genesis team has recovered about 80 percent of the data on board.

Successes and failures in mind, Van Woerkom continues to design space exploration craft at Lockheed Martin Industries in Denver. On April 11 his team launched the XSS-11, a micro-satellite structurally designed by Van Woerkom and his co-workers. They sized the structure, arranged all of the instruments on board for near-perfect balance and supervised the satellite’s manufacture.

Unlike Genesis, XSS-11 will not gather data from space. It is designed, instead, to demonstrate new technology — primarily, the ability of one spacecraft to rendezvous with another without human control. This technology is necessary for craft to dock in space or to bring back samples from Mars.

While designing XSS-11, Van Woerkom simultaneously worked on Lockheed’s proposal to build JIMO, the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter. As the spacecraft architect on the project, he developed a computer program that calculated the most efficient design for the nuclear-powered electric propulsion satellite. Scheduled for launch in 2015, it will explore three of Jupiter’s moons.

Van Woerkom was given that role because when the project began, he was the only person in Lockheed’s space division who understood nuclear reactors, turbines, electric propulsion and satellite design. He’s disappointed that he won’t see his design actually built. In January NASA awarded the JIMO contract to Lockheed competitor Northrop Grumman.

One consolation is that Van Woerkom is now assigned to a project that has been his goal since junior high. He’s leading the team that will design the structures and mechanisms for Lockheed’s version of a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) — the craft that NASA hopes will take humans to the moon again by 2014 — and, eventually, to Mars.

Should Lockheed win the first phase of the proposal, Van Woerkom’s team will design, build and, in 2008, actually fly a CEV prototype. Afterwards, they’ll compete with one other aerospace company for the contract to build the real thing. Van Woerkom expects that the next three years will be busy and, sometimes, tense. But it’s the work of his dream.

People sometimes ask him how he can devote his engineering gifts to projects so far from the problems of Earth.

“Only one-tenth of one percent of the national budget goes to NASA,” Van Woerkom said, “and that’s a bargain. People don’t realize the benefits that space projects have spawned for our daily lives — everything from CAT scans to titanium golf clubs. If we work toward a long-term presence on the moon, we’ll have to find efficient ways to recycle water and insulate closed spaces. Think of all the terrestrial uses for just those two. The problems we solve in space aren’t so far from those on Earth.”