Meet the IBEX Team: Mike Epperly
When Mike Epperly was a kid, it was clear to his family that he was destined to become an engineer. "My mom said I had 'engineer' stamped on my forehead," he said. It's hard to imagine him pursuing any other career – building spacecraft parts runs in Mike's family.
After growing up "almost everywhere," his family finally settled in Houston at the height of the space race. His dad was an engineer for the Apollo program and helped design the camera that televised Neil Armstrong's first step on the Moon. "Growing up in Houston, I dated astronauts' daughters, and my sister married an astronaut's son. I was kind of destined to work in space science," Mike said.
Today, Mike works as a program manager at the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in San Antonio, Texas. He manages teams of engineers, technicians, and quality control people who build the electronics for spacecraft. "We have an extremely talented team," he said.
Mike supervises the construction of the Combined Electronics Unit for the IBEX spacecraft, which was designed to keep its two instruments light and inexpensive. "Rather than the instruments having duplicate electronics built into them, we took most the electronics out of the two instruments and put them into a single box," he said. The "box" holds everything the instruments need to work properly.
Growing up in Houston, the Epperly family's circle of friends mainly included other NASA engineers and astronauts. Even Mike's first job – at Alfie's Fish 'n' Chips – was connected to the space program: the restaurant's owner was a deputy director of NASA–JSC!
However, Mike's dad most influenced him to pursue engineering. "My dad can do anything, build anything. He'd say, 'Don't buy a new refrigerator, we'll make one!'" Mike said. He passed his tinkering gene on to his son: "I built an adder out of diodes and transistors when I was 11, and I built a 4–bit computer when I was in ninth grade," he said. Even Mike's grandfather loved to build things – Mike said he would have been an engineer, too, if he had had the opportunity.
Although he took pre–med classes at the University of Texas at Austin, Mike majored in electrical engineering. A tough organic chemistry class convinced him that he preferred a career in engineering to one in medicine.
After college, he worked in the space division of Westinghouse Electric Company, based in Maryland. He stayed there fifteen years, engineering the electronics for several Department of Defense satellites. Over the years, he managed to earn three master's degrees from the Johns Hopkins University: in computer science (1989), electrical engineering (1991), and Technical Management/Systems Engineering (1995).
Since joining SWRI in 1996, Mike has traveled all over the country and the world for work. "So far I've been to Paris, London, Toulouse, Athens and Germany, and all over the United States!" he said. The variety of projects to work on, and the opportunity to see the world is the best and worst part of Mike's job, "I enjoy being in new places, but I dislike the strain it puts on my family while I'm away," he said.
Since SWRI is a relatively small organization, Mike often gets to see projects through, from ideas to finished products. "I can go out and work with the customer, write the proposal, do the job, hop on an airplane and carry it to the customer," he said.
Civilian space projects also have a relatively small budget, which was one of the biggest challenges Mike faced when he transitioned there from Westinghouse. "Working on Department of Defense jobs, money seemed to ooze from the walls," Mike said. "At NASA the budgets are a lot tighter and a lot smaller. One small part on a Defense Department satellite that I worked on had the same budget as an entire NASA mission. It was a bit of a culture shock to go from the Department of Defense world to the NASA world. But with NASA, I can talk about what I do and not worry about it, and I get to have multi–national partners, which is exciting," he said.
Conducting experiments on NASA's "Vomit Comet" is one of the most exciting things Mike has gotten to do while working at SWRI. The "Vomit Comet" is an airplane that simulates the microgravity conditions of space, which means that Mike got a taste of what it feels like to float in a spacecraft. "Everything they do [on the "Vomit Comet"] is destined to make you sick: the lights don't change, but your ears detect the change in attitude and gravity, so your brain says, 'This isn't right', and tells your stomach, 'It must be something you ate!' I didn't get sick, but other people did," he said.
Mike finds that most people love hearing about his engineering adventures – when they relate to space! "Once you start talking to people about space, it starts to pull them in," he said. "Each year, I go to my kid's elementary school to give a career day presentation. I show them some of the exciting things that I am involved with, like the 'Vomit Comet', liquid nitrogen, rocket launches and travel." He also noted, "Somewhere between elementary school and high school, their interest fades."
That's why Mike is on the board of directors at his daughter's magnet high school, the John Jay Science and Engineering Academy. The school prepares students for future careers in engineering. He also serves on the board of directors of the Alamo Region Academy of Science and Engineering, which runs regional science fairs, "recognized as one of the best in the nation," he said.
His investment in educating the next generation of engineers has already paid off. Mike foresees his daughter entering the field, and was delighted to hear from his best friend's daughter that he had inspired her to begin studying for a degree in engineering. "She is just finishing up her first year at the University of Texas, and she's already working on classified projects for the Navy," he said.