FEATURE — Fall 2004

Associate Professor Michael Polites stands in front of a model of Skylab, the first U.S. space station. He was one of the team leaders of NASA engineers who successfully controlled the attitude of Skylab during orbit re-entry.

(Aero) Dynamic Engineer

Michael Polites, B.S. '67, spent more than 30 years at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, working on such projects as Skylab and the Hubble Space Telescope. He now shares his engineering expertise, from spacecraft dynamics to attitude control and determination, with students at the University of Alabama.

by C.B. Adams

When the Russians successfully launched Sputnik in 1957, the event helped fuel the space race. It also captured the imagination of Michael E. Polites , B.S. '67. Polites was in junior high school in Belleville, Illinois, in '57, and he knew immediately that he wanted to apply his interest in mathematics and science to the space program—and to NASA, in particular. But unlike so many who dreamed of space, Polites did not want to pilot a spacecraft or take "one small step for man." Rather, he wanted to participate as an engineer.

"I thought it would be fantastic to be able to work in the space program and work for NASA, but I never dreamed of being an astronaut. I wanted to design the vehicles and help develop them," Polites says.

Polites graduated from Belleville Township High School with straight A's, except for four B's. He was drawn to Washington University initially because of its strong electrical engineering program. In his junior year, he heard about a program called systems and automatic controls.

"The idea of automatic control theory fascinated me, so I switched my major to that program [systems science and mathematics]," Polites says.

NASA dreams

Polites' zeal for these subjects garnered him an on-campus interview with a recruiter from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as from other organizations. He received several job offers, but the one from NASA was too good to turn down—even though the pay was the lowest.

"I was totally fascinated with working for NASA, especially at the Marshall Space Flight Center, because that was where Wernher von Braun and his team of German engineers were developing launch vehicles," Polites says.

For the next 34 years, Polites lived that dream. In the process, he became one of the most decorated engineers in the NASA organization. He holds four patents, has earned more than 70 NASA awards, authored more than 70 technical publications, and was named the Marshall Space Flight Center Inventor of the Year in 1995, among other distinguished accomplishments.

Polites did pioneering work in the use of magnetic torquers for spacecraft emergency stabilization and backup attitude control on the Hubble Space Telescope. This eliminated the need for a thruster system.

Polites began his NASA career in 1967 as an aerospace engineer in the Guidance, Navigation & Control Branch of the Astrionics Laboratory at Marshall. He joined the control analysis group working on Skylab. For the next seven years, he designed and analyzed feedback control systems for space vehicles and for the integration of these control systems with associated systems and components. In addition, he significantly contributed to the design and development of Skylab's attitude control system, which kept the vehicle oriented properly in space.

Polites enjoyed the challenges of working on Skylab. He also had the opportunity to meet with some of the astronauts who would benefit from his engineering.

"One day, I gave a briefing on my work, and Gordon Cooper was at the table. He was one of the first original seven astronauts. That blew my mind," Polites says.

In 1978, as Skylab's orbit was slowly degrading, Polites returned to the program as one of the team leaders of the NASA engineers who successfully controlled its attitude during re-entry.

"We worked around-the-clock during Skylab's last six months. We controlled the attitude, which controlled the drag, which controlled the prediction of where it would land so that it did not land over cities," Polites says.

From 1974 to 1986, Polites worked as an electronics engineer in the Systems Division, Systems Analysis & Integration Laboratory at Marshall. During this time, he planned, organized, and executed mission-related system planning on programs such as the Space Tug, the Space Station, and the Space Shuttle. He also designed and simulated the pointing and tracking system used by the Atmospheric Emissions Photometric Imaging Experiment on the ATLAS Space Shuttle mission—a system that improved tracking accuracy by a factor of 100.

But the highlight of this span in his career was working on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which was deployed from the Space Shuttle in 1990. Polites was a key contributor within NASA to the definition, design, and verification of the HST pointing control system. He pioneered the use of magnetic torquers for emergency stabilization and backup control, which eliminated the need for a thruster system for backup attitude control on the HST.

"I believe I made significant contributions to the design of the pointing and attitude control systems on Hubble. There were some problems with Hubble, such as the optics, but the pointing system is still working very well," he says.

The patent years

From 1986 to 1995, Polites served as an aerospace research engineer in space vehicle guidance, navigation and control systems, and satellite attitude control and fine pointing systems. He invented Rotating Unbalanced-Mass (RUM) devices. The finer aspects of RUMs are probably understood more fully by other engineers, but to the layman, these devices allow crafts—from ground-based to balloon- and space-based—to scan with significantly less power and mass, with more accuracy, and with better reliability and stability than previous methods. For his work with RUMs, Polites received four patents, two NASA Space Act Awards, and a NASA Research and Technology Award. He also was chosen Inventor of the Year at Marshall and was a finalist for NASA Inventor of the Year in 1995.

After NASA

Polites took on supervisory roles at Marshall from 1986 to 2001, eventually directing and supervising a staff of 350 engineers and scientists engaged in research, development, design, and analysis of space-related electronic systems. In 2001, he opted to retire from NASA and begin the next phase of his career—teaching. Polites received a master's degree in electrical engineering in 1971 from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and his doctorate in electrical engineering in 1986 from Vanderbilt University in Nashville. In 2001, he became an associate professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Alabama, where he teaches graduate and advanced undergraduate courses in spacecraft and aircraft dynamics and control.

"Teaching is another dream come true. It is a way for me to further contribute to my field—both in the classroom and through my ongoing research," he says.

It is no surprise that Polites' research continues in areas such as spacecraft dynamics and control, spacecraft attitude control and determination, and control theory. But he is also changing attitudes about the performance assessment of college football players. For the past two years, he has been working with the strength and conditioning coach at the University of Alabama to determine whether there are better, more accurate metrics, or parameters, for assessing players than the traditional metrics of weight and their time to run 40 yards. Polites is coy about his findings because he wants them to benefit the university, but he will say that his new metrics look promising.

"I'm approaching the metrics from the standpoint of engineering mechanics. I've been collecting data on actual players and determining a correlation between these parameters and their position on the depth charts. The emerging picture is that there are indeed more critical parameters that can predict success on the field, especially for positions such as linemen, cornerbacks, safeties, and so on," Polites says.

Between his past successes at NASA, his teaching, and his research both in the sky and on the gridiron, Polites is pleased about his career's trajectory. "Professionally, I can't ask for anything more in life," he says.

C.B. Adams is a free-lance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.