Profile: Mark A. Hopkins, Principal Director, Space Innovation Directorate
A Fulfilling Career in Aerospace Research
Mark Hopkins’ expertise in radiation hardness and space system survivability was a springboard to a broader career in technology and the innovative space efforts now taking flight in Albuquerque.
First published Summer 2009, Crosslink® magazine
When Mark Hopkins decided he’d had enough of big-city living in Los Angeles, he pretty much created a job for himself and pitched it to management so he could move to the Aerospace office in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Now he’s been there more than 15 years and is loving it. “We have many people here from both the East and West Coasts who prefer a more casual lifestyle,” he said in a recent interview.
Hopkins is a long-time employee of The Aerospace Corporation, more than 20 years at this point. But he worked in and out of the aerospace for-profit sector for much of his early career, honing skills he later transferred to Aerospace. Hopkins earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Pomona College and a master’s in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California. His father and a high school teacher both encouraged him to pursue an education and career in a technical discipline, he suspects, in his father’s case, because there would be job security. Today, Hopkins’ expertise lies in radiation hardening of microelectronics, space system survivability, space technology, and small satellite systems.
As principal director of the Space Innovation Directorate in Albuquerque, Hopkins is heading up national security space efforts that directly affect the military in its day-to-day efforts and address its urgent warfighter needs. The directorate supports three primary customers: the Space Development and Test Wing (SDTW), part of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center; the Space Vehicles and Directed Energy Directorates of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL); and now the DOD Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, formed in May 2007. Hopkins also is a key interface for collaborative efforts between Aerospace and Sandia National Laboratories.
“One of the best things about working in Albuquerque is we are building, launching, and operating small satellites, so we get to see all the aspects of space programs—from cradle to grave,” said Hopkins. The directorate is involved with figuring out what R&D payloads to fly, how to acquire and build satellite buses, integrating payloads onto those buses, building the ground systems they will operate on, launching satellites, and operating them, since SDTW has its own satellite operations center. A year ago, Hopkins even made it to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Western Pacific, where he participated in a satellite launch and lived for two weeks at the Army installation on the island. “It was hot, a lot of work and long days, but a once-in-a-lifetime experience I’ll never forget,” he said.
Hopkins was most interested in research and development work when he began his career as an engineer in the late 1970s. His first job was at Litton, Guidance and Control, followed by work at the Northrop Corporation. At Northrop, his work included investigating single event phenomena in GaAs (gallium arsenide), total dose effects on HgCdTe (mercury cadmium telluride) array structures, and characterizing radiation effects on photovoltaic devices. He also began to coauthor several papers on these subjects with his colleagues. The Northrop position involved interaction with people at Aerospace, and he remembers discussing projects with Mike Daugherty, who retired as executive vice president, and Bruce Janousek, a principal engineer/scientist in the Physical Sciences Laboratory. Hopkins then came to work at Aerospace briefly, but was drawn away to Science Applications International Corporation by the “lure of money.” After a year there, however, he got tired of constantly working the weekends required by the job. He moved on to a job at TRW, and two years later returned to Aerospace. He landed in the Engineering and Technology Group, and has been at the corporation ever since.
All of these positions were building blocks that supported Hopkins’ work in radiation effects. “The Reagan years were very good years. There were lots of job opportunities,” he said. Although his career began during the Cold War, Hopkins said many of the technologies developed during those days remain applicable to today’s space systems. “For example, there was a lot of investment in making electronics radiation hardened. These devices are used in building space systems today because, at a minimum, we still have to deal with the natural space radiation environment. Having that technology available makes our jobs easier by making sure critical subsystems will perform in an adverse environment,” he said.
The ORS work Hopkins’ group supports is a fairly new effort for the DOD. The mission is to develop the enablers associated with a responsive space architecture. The goal is different from the “big space” arena, where it may take five to ten years to develop a space system. The work instead is focused on “small space.” “We’re looking at developing enablers across the spectrum from launch vehicles, launch ranges, space vehicles, and payloads, to make the space deployment process go faster and be more responsive,” he said. The other principal activity of ORS is responding to and making recommendations for urgent needs that come down from the warfighter. “The ORS effort is considered an adjunct to the type of large space and high-performance system work typically done in El Segundo. Obviously, you’re not going to have the same type of performance with a small satellite. So you’re trading performance for agility and speed in terms of acquisition, and the focus is on tactical support to the warfighter in theater,” he said.
Hopkins explained the AFRL and SDTW efforts headed up in Albuquerque.
“AFRL develops space technology, and Aerospace works as its systems engineer on the technology demonstrations flown in space. A good portion of SDTW work is for the Space Test Program, flying research and development payloads for various DOD entities—Air Force, Army, and Navy. All three organizations [AFRL, SDTW, and ORS] are similar in that they’re all very forward looking,” he said. But occasionally, the needs of these three primary customers conflict, and Hopkins then counsels his staff: “Keep the discussion technical. Keep the emotion out of it. And try and work toward a solution that makes the best technical sense,” he said.
As for his thoughts on management, Hopkins said, “A great deal of it is common sense and the ability to effectively communicate. The hard part is the people part, not the technical work. ” Hopkins explained the importance of communicating with employees and management. “You’ve got to understand their [employees'] needs, as well as your manager’s needs, and trying to address those needs is extremely important,” he said. “A key aspect is also leadership, which is different than management. You can be a good manager by following your STE [staff technical effort], capital, and overhead budgets, but that doesn’t make you a good leader. To be a leader you have to understand the vision of your particular organization. You have to figure out what needs to be done and have the courage to execute those actions to make that vision a reality,” he said.
Hopkins has been active in professional organizations throughout his career, including being the general conference chair for both the Nuclear and Space Radiation Effects Conference, and Hardened Electronics and Radiation Technology Conference. “I got involved to stay abreast of technical advancements in my field. Engaging with colleagues who have common technical interests in a small technical community, helping to put together the conferences and organizing them—it’s just fun, that’s the bottom line,” he said. Hopkins has also taught “Key Enabling Technologies” at The Aerospace Institute. “Interacting with peers and sharing information is important,” he said. He also wanted to broaden his perspective by looking across the space technology enterprise, and said, “What better learning experience could I have than putting together a course?” Hopkins teaches the introduction to the course, and then draws in different technical experts from across the company. “It’s pretty unusual in that we have 10 or 12 instructors for the class,” he said.
What has kept Hopkins working at Aerospace for 20 plus years now is the culture of the corporation and the work. “I’ve dabbled in a lot of different companies, and within the defense and aerospace industry, I don’t think I ever found a place that treated their people better than Aerospace,” Hopkins said, adding, “Aerospace is uniquely positioned to provide insight into and influence on some of the very important decisions our country is facing. How could you not be engaged in that kind of work? It’s exciting.”
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