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Engineering the Future

Billed as an "epic drama of adventure and exploration," Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey found an unlikely disciple in four-year old Alec Gallimore.

Dr. Gallimore '82, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan, credits the film with spurring his lifelong pursuit of aerospace engineering and propulsion.

“It was a definite event in my life," he explained. "My aunt took me to see it at the theater and watching the spaceships and all of the action, discovering nuclear power... it truly captured my imagination; I knew that I wanted to do something in space.”

As A Space Odyssey celebrates its 50th anniversary this fall, that four-year old has grown to be a leader in the field of advanced electric propulsion. He led a research team that developed the X3 Hall-effect thruster, which, in October 2017, shattered records for power and thrust, showcasing technology that would enable faster and more efficient space travel.

In addition to his research, Gallimore continues to wear many hats at the University of Michigan as the Dean and a Professor of Engineering.

"I want to have an impact on the world around me, but I also love learning. We have more than 11,000 students in the College of Engineering. I get to not only have a bird's-eye view of what the future holds for us, but also shape it."

Through his daily interactions with students, fellow faculty, staff and university leadership, Gallimore has become an important and familiar face on campus. In September of 2017, he interviewed former Secretary of State General Colin Powell in front of 3,000 people.

"Being able to read a crowd or a room or an individual, to figure out the most effective way to communicate with different audiences is something that has served me well in my career."

As if to illustrate the point, Gallimore spent the morning of April 10 speaking to SJR students via video chat during Career Day. Just three days later, he hosted the ground-breaking of the $75M Ford Motor Company Robotics Building at the University of Michigan with the state's governor on hand.

According to Gallimore, the building should be completed in 2020 and will feature three floors of Michigan engineers with a fourth floor utilized by 120 researchers from Ford Motor Company. When complete, UM will be one of an elite few universities with a dedicated robotics facility, and will have robotic testing facilities for land, air, sea and space.

Gallimore recognizes the future potential in the field, citing the practical applications for AI and robotics.

"It's really a perfect storm. The real-world financial incentives are there because of the various uses. From self-driving cars to personal robotics systems that help you as an assistant, it's really coming to the fore in a good way. It's a fascinating confluence of technology and science fiction."

"But if I ever hear of a company called Skynet, I'm outta here," he adds, citing the self-aware AI system from the Terminator franchise.

While Dean Gallimore announces development of a robotics building, Professor Gallimore continues to focus on his lifelong passion: aerospace engineering.

It comes as no surprise that Gallimore fondly recalled his math and science teachers from his time at SJR.

“Perhaps my favorite teacher of all time was Mr. [Robert] Roswell, whom I had calculus with and just have really fond memories of,” said Gallimore. “He was a brilliant man, a dedicated teacher and, really what you’d call a gentleman scholar, instilling the beauty that is mathematics.”

Gallimore, whose brother Sean graduated from SJR in 1983, also enjoyed working as a lab assistant with Mr. [Tom] Piccate, the school's chemistry teacher in the early 80s.

Beyond the classroom, he recalls the friendships from his time in Montvale, especially his relationship with David Hibler.

“His family and his parents were just great and provided me with a home away from home,” he explained. “I really had a wonderful time in high school. I was somewhat popular at SJR and found the students judged me on the content of my character.”

The former Green Knight attended Rensselaer (RPI) where he earned a B.S. in aerospace engineering.

He applied (and was accepted) to CalTech, MIT, Princeton and Stanford to continue his studies. He settled on Princeton in his home state and completed his M.S. and Ph. D. in aerospace engineering with a focus on plasma physics.

As an intern at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Gallimore still had every intention of following his four-year old heart and traveling into space.

But things change.

Gallimore met fellow NASA intern Reates Curry. Dr. Curry is a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering in Ford's Research and Innovation Center, having earned her M.S. in biomedical engineering from Rutgers University.

The two have been married for 25 years and have two children, a daughter following in her mother's footsteps as a biomedical engineering major at Georgia Tech, and a son in high school.

In addition to meeting Curry, Gallimore found that the path to space required experience outside the classroom. He needed to have a few years in the workforce before he could apply to the astronaut corps.

"I had two 'musts' when looking for a job. I knew I didn't want a boss. And I was shy about public speaking so I wanted to take on that challenge," he explains.

And so Professor Gallimore came to be.

His career on campus began in 1992 at the University of Michigan and he has held more than a dozen different titles since then.

"I thought I'd be applying to the astronaut corps once I finished my education, but found my calling here on campus."

"Besides, even the most successful astronauts fly in a shuttle once or do a trip or two to the international space station. That's fine, but I was more interested in going to Mars and that just wasn't in the cards for my generation."

Gallimore is just as thrilled with the opportunity in front of him, the opportunity to create technology that will help the next generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts go further and deeper into space.

The X3 Thruster has the potential to do just that.

In a field test, the thruster generated 5.4 Newtons of thrust, the highest level achieved by any plasma thruster to date. By comparison, the previous record was 3.3 Newtons.

Gallimore explained: "Most cars use internal combustion engines, they burn fuel and that heat is used to drive pistons."

On a larger scale, those concepts still work, but can only be taken so far, so fast. The performance of conventional rocket engines is limited by chemistry.

"We have to rely on something other than energy associated with chemistry to achieve a greater performance."

Hall thrusters use electricity (usually generated by solar panels) to expel plasma—a gas-like cloud of charged particles—out a specially-designed "magnetic nozzle," thus generating thrust.

According to NASA, this technique can propel spacecraft to much greater speeds than chemical propulsion can achieve based on the limitations of Mother Nature.

"Using various force fields... magnetism, electromagnetism, electricity... you can accelerate the spacecraft to a greater velocity with a plasma drive system."

Still with him?

Remember this: when we send a probe to a distant planet, it's top speed is 40K miles per hour. That means it takes 18 years to reach Neptune or Pluto.

With the technologies Gallimore and his team are developing, they can double or triple that velocity with the potential to go more than 10x that speed.

The implications for future space travel are obvious. Shorter times to reach specific destinations would open many a pod bay door further into space than ever before.

For his part, Gallimore is still striving to open those doors. While he enjoys—shocker— reading in his spare time and is into fitness training, he no longer sees himself in space and he's fine with it.

"But," he adds, "I would love to be at the launch of the spacecraft that uses my propulsion system to send astronauts to Mars."