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University of Missouri

Man on a Mission

Dan O’Shaughnessy guides spacecraft to Mercury.

Engineer Dan O’Shaughnessy’s leadership in developing the solar sailing technique helped earn him the first Heinlein Award. Photo courtesy Dan O’Shaughnessy.

Engineer Dan O’Shaughnessy’s leadership in developing the solar sailing technique helped earn him the first Heinlein Award. Photo courtesy Dan O’Shaughnessy.

Most of us are lucky to drive a car without incident. Dan O’Shaughnessy, on the other hand, has guided a spacecraft to Mercury. O’Shaughnessy, BS ME ’96, ME ’00, is the mission systems engineer for the “MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging,” or MESSENGER, mission. He is also the first recipient of the Heinlein Award for working out ways to use solar radiation pressure to control a spacecraft. The award recognizes individuals who demonstrate the use of new technologies in space that can benefit commercial activities.

The MESSENGER team is conducting the first orbital study of our solar system’s innermost planet. The project is a cooperative effort among NASA, the Carnegie Institution for Science and O’Shaughnessy’s employer, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). The spacecraft launched in 2004 and has completed nearly 4,000 turns around Mercury.

During O’Shaughnessy’s graduate studies at MU, he joined a fellowship program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. That turned out to be a favorable orbit. While in Huntsville, O’Shaughnessy pitched in on various projects and continued the NASA research he had started at MU with Craig Kluever, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Kluever had worked on space shuttle guidance, navigation and control for Rockwell International before joining MU. As luck would have it, the father of O’Shaughnessy’s fellowship adviser worked at APL, so O’Shaughnessy sent him a résumé. APL liked Kluever’s work and O’Shaughnessy’s connection to it. He was in.

At APL, O’Shaughnessy joined the nascent MESSENGER mission in 2000. Eventually, he led a team that developed a way to use pressure from sunlight on its solar panels to help guide the craft to Mercury. In their solar sailing technique, the team varied the amount of solar pressure by changing the angle of the solar panels to adjust the spacecraft trajectory more delicately than they could by firing thrusters. Using radiation pressure to make very small corrections also saved propellant and extended the mission.

“It’s really nice to see the fruits of your labor operating and making it work,” he says.