When he graduated from Virginia Tech in 1985 with a degree in electrical engineering and applied for a position at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Ed Reynolds never expected to spend the next nearly four decades studying space.  

And Reynolds certainly never expected to be overseeing a team charged with potentially saving Earth from destructive collisions with asteroids, comets, and other space debris.

A successful deflection of an asteroid this past fall – the genesis of the United States’ first planetary defense system – led to Reynolds being named one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2023 by TIME magazine.

“It was a wonderful surprise,” Reynolds said of his reaction to making the prestigious list, which comes out annually. “We have many, many people on this project, and I was the project manager. TIME was recognizing the leader of the team, but there were so many people who had such an important contribution.”

“The TIME 100 list is all about influence, impact, and, in no small measure, excellence,” Jeff Kluger, editor at large at TIME, said. “We look for people who have helped shape the world in a meaningful and powerful way. It was hard to argue with the idea that Ed Reynolds' work of both shaping the world and protecting it from cosmic calamity shouldn’t earn him a spot on the list. We're all a little safer for the work Mr. Reynolds did — and we all owe him a debt of thanks.”

Asteroids and other space debris buzz Earth continuously and could potentially cause devastation if they struck the planet. So NASA and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory teamed on a test called DART — Double Asteroid Redirection Test.

A team of scientists and engineers essentially built a small spacecraft designed to collide with a small, nonthreatening asteroid named Dimorphos — it was 160 meters, or 525 feet, in diameter — to see if the impact could slow Dimorphos’ speed around Didymos, a larger asteroid Dimorphos orbits. Neither asteroid posed a risk to Earth, making them perfect for this test case. Scientists wanted to determine if a small spacecraft could deflect a similar piece of space debris heading toward Earth.

The team conducted the test in September, launching the spacecraft and crashing into Dimorphos at 14,000 mph. The collision slowed Dimorphos’ orbit by 33 minutes, vastly exceeding expectations. 

Ed Reynolds and a team member during the DART test
Ed Reynolds, seen here with one of his team members, plans on continuing to research new technologies and processes that potentially can be used to defend the planet. Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins APL.

“Something 100 meters in diameter would be catastrophic to a region,” Reynolds said. “Something bigger than 100 meters in diameter — those are dangers to the entire population of the planet. You want to have a method to protect yourself against something impacting Earth.

“If you mapped out where all the asteroids are and you've identified one that's coming at Earth in several years, if you can do a small diversion, you can avoid an impact with Earth. This was testing that method. Could we just run something into an asteroid and show that we could deflect it and how well could we deflect it? It was just testing one tool in the toolbox.”

The results certainly validated Reynolds’ decision to stay in the space realm. When he arrived at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, he worked with a small satellite called PolarBEAR before starting the laboratory’s training program and enjoyed it. Everything related to space went back to the first principles of physics — stabilizing a spacecraft, the thermal design of the spacecraft, and how it operated in a vacuum. After going through the four-month training program, he immediately returned to the space department to continue working on that project.

Reynolds managed DART through the critical design phase, and then the fabrication, build, and test phases, and then through the launch and operations all the way up through asteroid impact.

Indirectly, Virginia Tech played a role in this project and in Reynolds making the TIME list. Foundational principles learned in the classrooms and labs in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering set him for career success.

“It was all the first principles,” Reynolds said. “Virginia Tech was excellent in emphasizing engineering principles like tolerance and design uncertainty and design margin. One of the things you learned very quickly with all your designs was you need to put margin in to deal with uncertainty.”

Reynolds, whose daughter graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in architecture in May, doesn’t plan on lightening his workload despite DART’s success. He is working on a proposal to send a spacecraft to Io, a moon of Jupiter’s, to study the volcanic activity on that moon.

“It’s much more of a scientific mission than DART was,” Reynolds said. “The reason DART was recognized by TIME was there's this interest in the public of not going extinct because we got hit by an asteroid like the dinosaurs and so doing something about it is critical to the future of humanity.”

Reynolds also plans to remain involved in planetary defense projects. He and his team are looking at novel solutions to address the diverse range of asteroid threats.

“Say you discover an asteroid that's a threat to Earth,” he said. “We continue to explore new technologies and processes to close potential gaps in response, such as utilizing remote sensing techniques to find asteroids and tabletop exercises that walk through response plans to defend the planet. I’m excited and energized to continue our mission and translate each experience into critical contributions.”

Reynolds has been on a mission his entire career — to learn more about the solar system and to save the planet from devastation. It certainly doesn’t sound like that mission will be ending any time soon.

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