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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2008 / 09 

Space@VT: An emotional tie, and three strikes of lightning later

September 18, 2008

Wayne Scales
Wayne Scales

The naysayers said it couldn't be done. But sheer determination on the part of Wayne Scales proved them wrong.

In 1992 Scales was among the nation’s entry-level assistant professors of electrical engineering. His specialty — space plasma physics — was not the topic of a household dinner conversation. Only a handful of universities in the country were powerhouses in space research. They included Cornell, where he obtained his Ph.D., Stanford, University of Washington, University of Michigan, and several schools in the University of California system, including Berkeley.

Cornell, the home of the late Carl Sagan, encouraged Scales to consider joining its faculty. When he countered that he planned to join the Virginia Tech Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, they were surprised. Since Virginia Tech did not have a space science and engineering program, his Cornell colleagues felt Scales would not be satisfied in Blacksburg and that it would be too difficult for him to initiate an enormously expensive competitive research program by himself.

But Scales had an emotional tie to Southwest Virginia that outweighed the interest of other universities and government laboratories. He was the only child in his family, and he wanted to live near to his mother, who still resided in Ridgeway, Va., following his father’s death. Scales followed his heart. His intellect and his fortitude prevailed, opening a number of doors, and in a little more than a decade, he became the director of the Center for Space Science and Engineering Research at Virginia Tech, otherwise known as Space@VT, with annual research revenues of about $2.5 million. The center is now making its own headlines around the world.

The center was the result of a successful proposal that Scales and Joseph Wang of aerospace and ocean engineering submitted to the National Science Foundation. It awarded them $805,000 in 2005 to create the interdisciplinary center for space research. Scales became the director and Wang the associate director. The National Science Foundation funding allowed the hiring of Brent Ledvina, one of the most highly respected young space scientists in the nation. Next came Scott Bailey, a talented young space instrument and space mission scientist from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, which has one of most highly recognized space science programs in the world. Last, but certainly not least, came Robert Clauer, one of the most noted names in magnetospheric physics in the country and a former National Science Foundation program manager, as the third member of the center’s initial cluster hire. Clauer was designated as the second associate director.

“These were like three strikes of lightning,” Scales reflects, “and the next bolt came” shortly afterward. Within a year of the research center’s announcement, Virginia Tech was able to persuade the highly prestigious SuperDARN Radar Group to relocate from Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU APL) to the Blacksburg campus.

In enticing the group to come to Blacksburg, Scales and his colleagues capitalized on Virginia Tech’s advantage of having the ability to award Ph.D.s (applied physics laboratory’s research centers cannot) and utilization of the initial National Science Foundation support to create a doctoral specialization in space science in electrical and computer engineering and aerospace and ocean enginerring, including the development of several new space-oriented courses.

This commitment to graduate education and the possibility of tenure-track faculty positions provided the necessary incentive to the applied physics laboratory group to relocate to Virginia Tech. At the Applied Physics Laboratory, the group was receiving more than $1 million annually from the National Science Foundation, a government agency that looks at Ph.D. production as one of it primary missions. Scales says this criterion enabled him and others, including Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Head James Thorp and engineering Dean Richard Benson, to convince the Applied Physics Laboratory researchers to relocate to Blacksburg.

The SuperDARN network is an international radar network for studying the Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere, and connection into space. The laboratory group is now operating its radar at Virginia Tech’s Blackstone Agricultural Research and Extension Center. New faculty members Joseph Baker and Michael Ruohoniemi are responsible for its daily operations, aimed at studying magnetic storm associated electric fields. Ray Greenwald, described by Scales as the “godfather” of the SuperDARN group, is now retired but continues to consult with them.

“It makes sense that Virginia should excel in space science and engineering. We are close to Washington, D.C. Also, Wallops Island, Va., is expected to become a more prominent launch facility. We have the Virginia Space Grant Consortium and the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) located in Hampton, Va. A lot of things are coming into alignment,” Scales says.

But Virginia is just one piece of the equation for Space@VT. For example, Clauer who works out of the National Institute of Aerospace is establishing an Antarctic chain of autonomous magnetic observatories along the 400 magnetic meridian. A prototype system has been tested successfully at the South Pole during the past two years. “The Sun-Earth system is our laboratory,” Clauer says. “It is a large electrodynamic system and the space weather in this system can affect many important technologies upon which our society depends.” Space weather includes galactic cosmic rays, micrometeoroids, solar cell damage, plasma bubbles, and airline passenger radiation.

Scott Bailey, a new assistant professor of the electrical and computer engineering, is working at the opposite end of the Earth, along with Chris Hall of the aerospace and ocean engineering department, to launch a sounding rocket from Poker Flat, Ala., in 2010. The sounding rocket experiment will demonstrate if stellar occultation is a viable technique to measure nitric oxide. According to Bailey, “there is growing evidence showing that solar energetic particles lead to the production of ozone-destroying nitrous oxide.” The project is being conducted with Colorado University’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

Scales also credits the Center for Space Science and Engineering Research Advisory Board for much of the group’s progress. Dan Sable, president of VPT Inc., serves as the chair of the board. “Dan has been critical to our success with his knowledge of businesses and space research,” Scales says. Other members of the Advisory Board include representatives from Boeing, Orbital Sciences Corp., Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, and several other industries and government agencies.

The center is also making a concentrated effort to engage underrepresented groups in science and engineering in general, and in space science and engineering in particular. It is developing joint research and educational ventures with minority serving institutions such as the Inter-American University in Puerto Rico and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.