An enthusiasm for rocketry and the space program is what drives many to seek employment at NASA. Mix this passion with the field of plasma physics and you have NASA Glenn Research Center’s (GRC) Michael J. Patterson’s dream career. The opportunity to apply his passion afforded him the experience to watch ideas become a reality. Mr. Patterson is one of the fortunate few to work on a project from conception to on-orbit. “There is a unique chance that you can have ideas, labs, run tests, and actually get the resources to develop and fly,” says Patterson.
Mr. Patterson started his NASA career during his junior year of college as an intern at GRC under the mentorship of Jim Sovey in the field of electric propulsion. He was already on the way to applying plasma physics as a means of propulsion that he would see fly on a NASA spacecraft — Deep Space 1. However, there were some detours along the way.
Ion propulsion was not established at the time as a reliable means of propulsion. To gain that credibility, Mike saw the need for an application of this technology to “ground” the International Space Station (ISS). “Space Station had a need, GRC had the solution,” says Patterson. In low earth orbit, ISS and its large solar array panels are collectors for electrons. Mike developed and built the plasma contactor, a device that emits electrons to neutralize the charge on ISS’ structure. “It is exciting to build flight hardware,” says Patterson.
Another chance to demonstrate the value of ion propulsion was orbital station, for commercial spacecraft. This time the technology was used to provide the thrust necessary to keep the spacecraft in an assigned location. It has subsequently been used in over 17 commercial satellites as the thruster of choice based on weight and cost.
The Deep Space 1 mission launched in 1998 and successfully completed its mission in 2001. The 2 kW class ion thruster took over after the spacecraft separated from the launching Delta rocket. The spacecraft’s goal was to validate 12 futuristic technologies, including the ion-propulsion system. After successfully completing these scientific validations, the spacecraft’s final mission was to encounter comet Borrelly.
The spacecraft plunged into the center of Borrelly and captured some of the best images ever taken of a comet. The Team received recognition for their efforts during the Agency’s Turning Goals into Reality (TGIR) Awards Ceremony (2001). These awards honor NASA’s top aerospace accomplishments annually.
Mr. Patterson is building upon GRC’s ion propulsion expertise. The Center received an R&D 100 Award (2001) for a design that improved engine performance and durability. This award was the capstone of GRC’s efforts to demonstrate the viability of ion propulsion.
Mr. Patterson continues to improve ion engines with more powerful versions such as NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) in the 7 kW class. The the NEXT Project aims to develop a high-performance ion propulsion system to Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 6 for future NASA robotic science mission applications. The NEXT Project is an integrated effort comprised of several elements that will produce and validate engineering model system components to be transitioned to flight system development.
With Mr. Patterson’s broad technical knowledge of space electric propulsion system technologies and his ability to implement and direct complex programs that lead to flight readiness, there is no question as to the meaning of “success.” Mr. Patterson agrees that ion technology has proven itself as a promising technology for future missions.
Mr. Patterson has received 7 patents for thruster technology, and has published over 120 papers in the areas of spacecraft propulsion, mission analyses, and plasma contactor technology. He is also a recipient of the following awards:
- “NASA’s Government Invention of the Year” – For Invention of Cathode Technology for the International Space Station 
- The Astronauts’ Personal Achievement Award – “Silver Snoopy” – For development of the ISS Plasma Contactor Unit 
- NASA Space Flight Awareness Honoree – For significant contributions to the Space Station by increasing safety and reliability 
- Space Laurel Award from Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine – For the NSTAR Deep-Space 1 Ion Thruster 
- NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal – For the development and delivery of cathode technology for key NASA missions 
- Steven V. Szabo Award for Excellence in Engineering – For identification and implementation of a solution to the Space Station power system interaction with the space plasma 
- Quality Assurance Special Achievement Recognition (QASAR) Award – For identification and resolution of the hardware failure during acceptance testing of the International Space Station plasma contactor system 
- Achievement Award for Science – Honorable Mention, by Northern Ohio LIVE Magazine