Alec D. Gallimore | Faculty
By the time he was in high school, aerospace engineering professor Alec Gallimore had two clear goals: become an astronaut and fly a spacecraft he’d helped design. He knows there were times when this particular career plan sounded, well, kind of out there.
But getting out there was really the whole point.
Gallimore’s interest in electric propulsion grew out of his love for science fiction - specifically Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey - and his fascination with the idea of taking high-speed travel to the extreme. But unlike a lot of teenage sci-fi fans, Gallimore, now the College of Engineering’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering, and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, put himself on course for his own space odyssey.
His Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Lab works on leveraging the long-haul potential of electric propulsion to build systems capable of extremely long space missions. The X3 plasma thruster his team developed in partnership with NASA and the U.S. Air Force is part of a prototype propulsion system that NASA is considering for a future mission sending humans to Mars.
There are two dominant ways to move a spacecraft, depending on how far it’s going and - to a degree - how quickly it needs to get there. Most people are familiar with chemical propulsion - burning a chemical fuel that generates enough thrust to send big, heavy payloads into space. Chemical systems give a big push, then shut down once the craft reaches its desired speed or orbit. They’re great for “short” trips, like going to the moon.
Electric propulsion, on the other hand, uses onboard spacecraft power, typically produced from solar cells, to superheat a gas - usually xenon or krypton. The heat causes electrons to break away from the gas molecules, forming a plasma of positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons. Then the system applies magnetism and voltage, pushing the ions out the back end of the craft at speeds 10 times faster than combustion can achieve.
Electric propulsion uses far less propellant than combustion and, given enough time, can reach speeds about 10 times that of a chemical system.
NASA’s Apollo missions, for example, used chemical combustion to reach the moon in three days. A plasma system could cover that same 238,900 miles in 2 hours but would take months to reach that speed. That makes electric propulsion especially well-suited to providing a sustained push for really long trips - like going to Mars.
Initially looking for his own ticket to space, Gallimore earned a bachelor’s in aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and his Master’s and Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at Princeton. He worked at NASA while still a student and learned a lot about what it takes to be an astronaut. He met astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz, who had flown on seven space shuttle missions, and decided to emulate the mechanical engineer and physicist, who’d also developed his own plasma propulsion system.
At the time, NASA required prospective astronauts to have some work experience, so in 1992, when Michigan offered Gallimore an opportunity to inherit the largest vacuum chamber at any university, he took U-M up on the offer. Besides, he figured a short-term stint as a professor would be fun in that he would work with very bright students and it would spare him the hassle of working for a traditional boss.
He never expected to love it so much. As Gallimore ticks off the list of things he considers the best parts of his job - his research; his lab; being around smart, enthusiastic young people; mentoring graduate students - it’s clear he has no regrets.
“I love learning things and making an impact,” he said.
Gallimore has mentored more than 35 PhD students, and he considers each of them extended family. He’s celebrated with them, laughed with them, counseled and comforted them. They send him photos of new babies and pictures from visits with other former students.
Not long ago, Gallimore received an email with an attached picture of a man in his 40s holding an award.
“Dear Professor Gallimore,” the letter read. “I was in your undergraduate Spacecraft Design and Propulsion classes a little over 18 years ago, and I wanted to let you know how your lecture on electric propulsion shaped me…”
The former student had become an engineer on a Boeing communications satellite project. The award he received for his work on the project sparked conversations about mentoring and great teachers.
“...I felt it was long overdue that I share this with you,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Gallimore’s research continues to shape the electric propulsion field. His lab conducted research on the thruster used on the still-ongoing NASA Dawn mission, a spacecraft that has orbited two dwarf planets in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Under his guidance Michigan has led a six-university Air Force Center of Excellence since 2010.
And even after 30 years of work with plasma thrusters, Gallimore retains a sense of wonder that these things actually work.
“I’m always awed by it,” he said. “You’re taking a wire, and you’re taking an inert gas, and somehow you’re combining those things to make thrust. It’s kind of magical.”
Alec D. Gallimore, Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Engineering, formerly Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education from 2011 to 2013. He is a member of the Applied Physics graduate program; from 2005 to 2011, Professor Gallimore served as an Associate Dean at the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies where he was the Graduate School liaison to Michigan’s graduate programs in engineering, the physical sciences and mathematics.
Professor Gallimore's primary research interests include electric propulsion, plasma diagnostics, space plasma simulation, electrode physics, nano-particle energetics and hypersonic aerodynamics/plasma interaction. He has extensive design and testing experience with a number of electric propulsion devices including Hall thrusters, ion thrusters, RF thrusters, microwave thrusters, arcjets, 100-kW-class steady MPD thrusters and multimegawatt pulsed coaxial plasma accelerators. He has implemented a variety of probe, microwave, and optical/laser plasma diagnostics, and has graduated 36 PhD students and 14 MS students in the fields of electric propulsion and plasma physics.
Professor Gallimore has written more than 300 archival journal articles and conference papers, and 2 book chapters. He is also director of the NASA-funded Michigan Space Grant Consortium and director of the Michigan/Air Force Center of Excellence in Electric Propulsion. Professor Gallimore has served on a number of NASA and Department of Defense boards and studies, including being a member of the United States Air Force Scientific Advisory Board.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
- AIAA (Amercian Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics) - Fellow
- Electric Rocket Propulsion Society (ERPS) - Board Member
- ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education)
- Assoc. Editor for AIAA Journal of Propulsion & Power
- Assoc. Editor for Joint Army, Navy, NASA, Air Force (JANNAF) Propulsion Journal
- Defense Science Board Task Force on Force Modernization 1999
- Secretary for Electric Rocket Propulsion Society (ERPS)
- Member of Defense Science Study Group (DSSG) 1995-1997
- Member, Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, 2001-2005
- Advisor, Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, 2005-present
- Sigma Gamma Tau
- Sigma Xi
- Tau Beta Pi
POSITIONS HELD AT MICHIGAN
- Professor (2004 - present)
- Associate Professor (1998-2004)
- Associate Professor of Applied Physics (1998-2004)
- Director, Michigan Space Grant Consortium (NASA) (2000-present)
- Head of the Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory (PEPL)
- Assistant Professor of Applied Physics (1994-1998)
- Assistant Professor (1992-1998)
Specializations and Research Interests
- Electric Propulsion
- Space Propulsion
- Plasma Physics
- Spacecraft Systems Design (Aero 483)
- Electric Propulsion (Aero 536)
- Management of Space Systems Design (Aero 583)
- Tau Beta Pi Teaching Award (1988, 1999)
- College of Engineering Team Research Excellence Award (1999)
- College of Engineering Teaching Excellence (1992)
- College of Engineering 1938 E Award
- Sigma Gamma Tau Teaching Award (1989, 1995)
- NASA Faculty Fellow Award (1993)
- Silver Shaft Award (Instructor of the Year), by the University of Michigan Sigma Gamma Tau Chapter (1994, 1996)
- Faculty Fellowship Award, by the University of Michigan Rackham Graduate School (1994)
- Crystal Image Award for Technical Achievement from the National Technical Association (NTA) for Science Educator of the Year(1994)
- Class of '38E Junior Faculty Outstanding Achievement Prize by the University of Michigan College of Engineering (1996)
- Associate Fellow-American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics (AIAA) (1999)
- Best Paper Award in Electric Propulsion at the 1998 Joint Propulsion Conference, by AIAA (1999)
- Faculty Career Development Award, by the University of Michigan (2000)
- The Aerospace Engineering Award for Outstanding Accomplishment (2002)
- Outstanding Achievement in Academia, National GEM Consortium (2004)
- Trudy Huebner Service Excellence Award, by the University of Michigan College of Engineering (2005)
- Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award, by the University of Michigan (2005)
- Decoration for Meritorious Civilian Service, by the United States Air Force (2005)
- Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship, by the University of Michigan (2006)
- Fellow-American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics (AIAA) (2010)
- Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering, by the University of Michigan (2015)
- Haas, J. M., Gallimore, A. D., and McFall, K., and Spanjers, G., "Development of a High-Speed, Reciprocating Electrostatic Probe System for Hall Thruster Interrogation," Review of Scientific Instruments, Vol. 71, No. 11, November 2000, 4131-4138.
- King, L. B., and Gallimore, A. D., "Mass Spectral Measurements in the Plume of an SPT-100 Hall Thruster," Journal of Propulsion and Power (AIAA), Vol. 16, No. 6, November-December 2000, 1086-1092.
- Haas, J. M., and Gallimore, A. D., "Internal Plasma Potential Profiles in a Laboratory-Model Hall Thruster," Physics of Plasmas, Vol. 8, No. 2, February 2001, 652-660.
- Gulczinski, F. S. and Gallimore, A. D., "Near Field Ion Energy and Species Measurements of a 5 kW Laboratory Hall Thruster '' Journal of Propulsion and Power (AIAA), Vol. 17, No. 2, March-April 2001, 418-427.
- Bilen, S. G., Domonkos, M. T., and Gallimore, A. D., "Simulating Ionospheric Plasma with a Hollow Cathode in a Large Vacuum Chamber," Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets (AIAA), Vol. 38, No. 4, July-August 2001, 617-621.
- Gallimore, A. D., "Near- and Far-Field Characterization of Hall Thruster Plumes" Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets (AIAA), Vol. 38, No. 3, May-June, 2001, 441-453.