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William N. Barker

William N. Barker

Engineering Mechanics
Class of 1964, BS

Unknown to most citizens, the U.S. maintains a Space Catalog, a directory of approximately 13,000 known objects that now orbit the earth. “The importance of this catalog, especially to the nationʼs defense, cannot be underestimated,” says William N. Barker, a 1965 engineering mechanics graduate of Virginia Tech. He and his team of engineers are responsible for many of the innovations leading to improvements of the catalog accuracy.

For example, he and his team created the Astrodynamics Support Workstation, a computer system supporting the constant, timely, and accurate information on the position of each and every cataloged object in space. The workstation software consists of approximately one million lines of program code, and it is the first system to routinely maintain the entire Space Catalog using numerical techniques. Cataloged objects are updated three times each day and the workstation is manned 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Barker, a 40-year veteran of the field of applied astrodynamics, says “I fell into my career, a childhood dream.” As the son of a construction superintendent who was “always good at making things work,” the young Barker filled his days with reading science fiction books and building and flying model airplanes. “My father taught me tenacity and the importance of doing a job well. He inspired me. Although not formally trained, he is the best engineer Iʼve known,” says Barker. After graduating from Handley High School in Winchester, Virginia, he spent a year at Randolph Macon Military Academy. An influential physics professor at the academy sold him on attending Virginia Tech.

After arriving in Blacksburg, he “fell in love with engineering mechanics. I became well grounded in statics and dynamics,” says the accomplished engineer. At the same time, he was a proficient member of the Corps of Cadets, achieving the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and Commander of its First Air Force Group. He was a member of the Corpsʼ Pershing Rifles Precision Drill Team, later called the Gregory Guard. “The Corps of Cadets taught me self-confidence and the leadership skills necessary to manage the difficult and complex technical projects I have been associated with,” Barker reflects.

Upon his graduation in 1965, Barker spent four years with the Air Force, flying jets for the first 12 months. He then began his work of keeping track of satellites in orbit for the Air Force Cheyenne Mountain Complex Space Defense Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was among the first of the young Air Force officers in the late 1960s to start determining when and where decaying objects would fall out of orbit and return to the earth.

Barker laughs as he recalls the computer systems and the ancient computer cards that were used as he started work on cataloging space objects. “I have more computing power in my home today than all of Cheyenne Mountain had back in the 1960s.”

When Barker left military service in 1969, he spent one year with the Philco-Ford Corp., developing a new, more efficient method of maintaining the Air Force Space Catalog. After this, he entered the U.S. Civil Service and for the next 15 years, Barker was a project leader for the Directorate of Astrodynamics at Headquarters Air Force Space Command.

During this time, Barker was involved in directly supporting Air Force Space Command on nearly every important and potentially dangerous satellite reentry, including NASAʼs Skylab, the MIR space station, and MARS-96 spacecraft.

When NASA decided to abandon Skylab, its first space station, “a lot of fear was sparked,” Barker recalls. The reentry would break the station into large surviving pieces that could be dangerous as they hit the ground. “NASA saved enough electrical power to use onboard gyros to control the attitude of Skylab in case predictions showed it re-entering over a populated area.”

Sure enough, this became necessary as predictions showed a possible reentry of Skylab on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Consequently, NASA, armed with data from the Air Force team that included Barker, spun up the gyros, changed Skylabʼs attitude thus extending its trajectory. As a result, most of the debris then fell harmlessly into the Outback area of Australia. “According to witnesses, it was quite a fireworks show,” Barker says about the happy ending.

From 1985 through 1987, Barker, employed by Teledyne Brown Engineering, developed a PC based satellite tracking program, SATRAK, that achieved worldwide use by the Air Force and Department of Defense. From 1987 until 1998, he led the development of several new capabilities for the Air Force Space Command as the senior astrodynamics engineer for Kaman Sciences Corp. One was a workstation capability designed for space launch collision avoidance that successfully supported NASAʼs Cassini interplanetary mission to Saturn. He also developed a new capability for calibrating the Air Force Space Surveillance Network radar and optical sensors.

In 1998, he joined ITT Industries Systems as a senior scientist, still working on improving the accuracy of the Space Catalog. From 1999 until 2002, Barker led an Air Force and NASA sponsored initiative to improve atmospheric density modeling for satellites experiencing significant atmospheric drag. The initiative resulted in improved orbit determination and prediction accuracy for near earth objects. “This development was important for manned space flight collision avoidance protection since the International Space Station (ISS) and the Space Shuttle reside at these altitudes,” Barker explains.

For the past six years, Barker has served as the chief scientist for astrodynamics for OMITRON, Inc. In this position, he is responsible for the continued improvement of the accuracy of the Space Catalog. He also supports the Air Force Collision Assessment missions for the ISS, the Space Shuttle, NASAʼs robotics scientific satellites, and other critical U.S. satellite assets.

In 2003, he headed a contractor team that attempted to determine if the Shuttle Columbia disaster could have been caused by a collision with space debris while in orbit. Findings were inconclusive but the “sensors we use arenʼt sensitive enough to track the really small pieces of debris that might be the size of a golf ball or less,” he explains. “However, thatʼs a big issue as a golf ball-sized object can do enormous damage if it hit the ISS or the Space Shuttle at orbital speeds. Itʼs like a Mack truck hitting you on the Interstate.”

“The defense contracting business is very volatile, and it is unusual to remain in the same field very long, but I have a niche,” Barker says. Even though the Air Force may soon move its Space Mission out of Colorado, Barkerʼs group will remain together and continue to support the maintenance and improvement of the Space Catalog. The most likely scenario is that beginning in 2007, the Astrodynamics Support Workstation software will be re-hosted on different machines, new capabilities will be added, and it will take two to three years to manage the change.

Barker says he might retire when this project is finished, but he may have to talk his wife Nancy into doing the same. She has been honored in her job as the number one Transaction Coordinator for a state-wide title insurance company three times in the last six years. But since she shares his avid golfing interest, he has hope.

Barker has one daughter, Crista, who along with her husband resides in Colorado Springs.

Class of: 1964
Year Inducted into Academy: 2007