Helen L. Reed

Engineering Mechanics
Class of 1980, MS; Class of 1981, Ph.D.

On Helen Reed’s web page, under her photo, are the words: “Currently Teaching / My Hours: Open Door.” She may be the only engineering department head in the country with such a novel overture to its university students, and at Texas A&M’s Top 10 aerospace engineering program that is no small offer. Being the second largest aerospace engineering department in the U.S., there are 628 undergraduates and 112 graduate students.

Students do seem to be the center of Reed’s academic life as close to 1,000 young minds have participated in extracurricular projects she has led over the last 14 years. And when she looks to the future, they are the primary focus of her upcoming goals. “I want to help our students realize their dreams and be leaders in the profession. The future is in very good hands with our young people,” she says.

She has led student activities including soda-can-sized “satellites” launched from amateur rockets, a sounding rocket launch, a Space Shuttle STS-105 experiment, moon buggy designs, several high-altitude balloon launches, four KC-135 microgravity experiments, and two major satellite programs launched with the Air Force.

Her leadership of student activities has led to 10 national awards over the past 13 years, including three American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Best Overall Design Awards in the Annual Buggy Moon Race in 1996, 1998, and 2003. Her student teams secured three first places at the annual student competition at the AIAA/USU Small Satellite Conference in 1994, 1995, and 1997. Also in 2003, she advised the Moon Buggy team that won the AIAA Crash and Burn Award for the Best Wreck, countered by the Frank Joe Sexton Memorial Pit Crew Award for ingenuity, resourcefulness, and leadership.

A 1984 National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator award winner, Reed is also a very effective researcher, recognized as a national leader in computational fluid mechanics with a particular emphasis on boundary layer stability and transition to turbulence, and in small satellite technologies with an emphasis on responsive space systems and autonomous rendezvous and docking.

Most recently, her accomplished career led to her receipt of the 2007 AIAA/American Society of Engineering Education J. Leland Atwood Award, bestowed annually upon an aerospace engineering educator in recognition of outstanding contributions to the profession. She is presently a Fellow of AIAA, the American Physical Society, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Reed knew she wanted to become an engineer early in her life. Her parents were both mathematicians who worked at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. At 12, she watched John F. Kennedy’s dream of landing a man on the moon become reality. And she says that her “wonderful set of mentors” at Aberdeen High School also had an impact on her career choice.

She attended Goucher College, summer interned at NASA Langley Research Center, and graduated in 1977 with honors in mathematics in three years under the guidance of Professor Dorothy Bernstein. NASA Langley hired her as an aerospace technologist to develop energy efficient aircraft. The chief scientist at the time, Dr. Werner Pfenninger, “was a terrific mentor to me and always challenged me. He strongly encouraged me to continue my education and pursue graduate school at Virginia Tech,” she says.

After a little more than a year, she acted on Dr. Pfenninger’s advice and took a graduate leave of absence. She moved to the Blacksburg campus in 1978 to work with Professor Ali Nayfeh, the world’s leading expert in perturbation methods. “It was a tremendous opportunity for me to learn and implement some very powerful techniques to solve problems,” she explains.

She was definitely one of the few women in a man’s world at that time in engineering science and mechanics (ESM) but “I found a collegial environment with the faculty and my graduate student peers.”

Similar to how she streamlined undergraduate curriculum, she earned her master’s degree in 1980 after two years and her Ph.D. the following year. Stanford University was quick to note a qualified woman on a fast career track, and hired her as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering in 1982. Again, she says she found “a very welcoming” community with “great mentors.”

When President Ronald Reagan signed the authorization for the first year of National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator (NSF PYI) awards, her name was on the list of the inaugural recipients. She used the award money to start building her own program in stability and transition, research areas that had applications in reducing drag on aircraft, thereby increasing their fuel efficiency.

In 1985, in the middle of her quest for tenure at Stanford, Arizona State University (ASU) persuaded her to cross the state line, awarding her the title of associate professor, with tenure coming three years later. By 1992 she was promoted to full professor.

ASU had an excellent engineering program dedicated to bringing in young and promising people, and Reed found herself to be among the selected. Her work with students blossomed at ASU, where she pioneered new modes to promote systems engineering, interdisciplinary teamwork, communication skills, and familiarity with government and industry practices through the provision of various real aerospace projects including two major satellite programs with the Air Force.

“Students thrive in an environment created around a real-world program relevant to national needs (such as a space program) in which research results are transformed into hardware and then tested,” she explains. She goes on to say that in her lab, students from many different disciplines and experience levels (from freshmen to graduate students) team to research, design, build, and launch or operate low-cost satellites and other space systems. In the process, they learn the cradle-to-grave process of design including requirements, testing, safety, deadlines, documentation, and reviews.

Satellites designed and built by her students have been launched into space in partnership with the Air Force. In 2000, Orbital Sciences launched ASU’s 13 pound nanosatellite ASUSat1 on the inaugural Minotaur mission. In 2004, the work of Reed and her students culminated in the launch of two of the three Three Corner Sat microsatellites as a constellation on the Boeing Delta IV Heavy Demo. Their third satellite “Petey” is on display at the Smithsonian. “What an honor to see students’ hard work and innovation selected for flight and then for the National Air and Space Museum collection,” she says.

Complimenting her move into the aerospace department head’s position in 2004 at Texas A&M, she has continued her emphasis on students, creating the AggieSat Lab Student Satellite Program with additional space launches planned, including an eight-year, four-mission campaign with NASA Johnson Space Center to demonstrate autonomous rendezvous and docking technologies. Another potential mission with the Air Force aims to demonstrate a stereo-based relative navigation system.

Her AggieSat Lab is currently conducting research into and implementing small satellite platforms for testing unconventional software and hardware design architectures and methodologies to advance responsive space missions. The lab has also developed an Integrated Concurrent Engineering capability, called Team AggieSat, that incorporates a real-time collaborative process in which a multidisciplinary team of students approaches each design or analysis problem through the use of network-linked analysis and business tools. In addition, a multidisciplinary Junior Engineer/Senior Engineer Certificate Program is in place aimed at promoting creativity and increasing productivity within an academic environment. The emphasis is on exposing students to all underlying aspects of spacecraft engineering, systems engineering, communication, management, and leadership. “It’s like a company,” Reed explains.

The impact of Reed’s work is now extending into unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and micro-aerial vehicles (MAV), as she is migrating many of these same concepts of rapid design and deployment there.

Reed is also very active and recognized as a leader in the area of boundary layer stability and transition. Accurate transition prediction is acknowledged by all in the aerospace profession as an enabler for flight over a wide speed range from high-altitude UAS to hypersonic trans-atmospheric vehicles, yet current transition prediction models are often highly empirical resulting in large uncertainties in aerodynamic drag and heating requirements. As a computational person, she has effectively interfaced with experimentalists and led in tool validation resulting in effective control methods.

The move to Texas A&M, in many ways, was very special and made Reed feel closer to Virginia Tech. “Texas A&M Aerospace Engineering and ESM feel like sister departments. Twelve of our faculty are either alumni or taught at Virginia Tech – with all but two from ESM,” she says.

She adds, “Aerospace is very important to the state of Texas. All of the major aerospace companies have a presence here.” And she often has the opportunity to visit the NASA Johnson Space Center with her students, and “if I am in the old Mission Control room, I still tear up watching the footage of our landing on the Moon. It’s a very emotional experience for those of us who grew up with the space program,” she says. “And today’s young people are talented and creative, and I am confident they will successfully carry us to even further heights in the future.”

When Reed heads home in the evenings, she has four horses, three dogs, and a barn cat eagerly awaiting her arrival. She and her husband, William Saric, also a professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M, manage a 92-acre farm dedicated to agricultural use.

Class of: 1980, 1981
Year Inducted into Academy: 2008

Dr. Helen L. Reed