By Melanie Conner, Student and Alumni Affairs Liaison and Ron Wilson, APU Graduate
Ron Wilson is an A-10 fighter pilot who has served in the United States Air Force for over 37 years. During his time in the Air Force, he flew combat missions and worked his way from Squadron Command to Wing Command.
While serving as a General in the Air Force, he was in charge of the domestic operations for Michigan and assisted in running the Michigan Air National Guard.
Ron joined American Airlines in 1990 when he transitioned from active-duty Air Force to the Air National Guard. After his retirement from the Air Force in 2019, Ron continued his career as a pilot with American Airlines, piloting international flights on a Boeing 777. He flies about 1,000 hours a year, and the furthest he’s traveled is to Hong Kong (which is about a 15-hour flight).
Aviation is proof that given the will, we have the capacity to achieve the impossible. – Eddie Rickenbacker, race car driver and fighter pilot
Fulfilling a Dream by Taking Classes in Space Studies
Ron earned his undergraduate degree in business and data processing at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. One of his bucket list items was to finish his master’s degree in space studies, which he started in 1986. At 58, Ron began to fulfill that dream with American Public University.
Ever since watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969, Ron says that he was interested in space. He wanted to obtain a degree that really interested him, and he selected the master’s in space studies with a concentration in astronomy.
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Consulting with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Ron says that at APU, he was really encouraged to reach out, talk with, interview and email experts in his field. These efforts became central to sharpening his education.
Ron observes, “I was so impressed with the master’s program in space studies. Being 58, I had great doubts about tackling something that I had no real background in. Much to the contrary, I learned so much.”
Toward the end of his degree, he struggled to pick an appropriate thesis topic. In his last class (SPST633 – Astronomical Instrumentation) prior to his thesis course, he worked on a paper about radio telescopes.
Ron notes, “In writing the paper, I contacted NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for questions on their Lunar Crater Radio Telescope project. Following many back-and-forth conversations, I decided to do my thesis on active surface, which would interface and improve the LCRT.”
Ron says that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was interested in his thesis and decided to keep him on as a consultant. He continues to serve as a consultant for them today.
For JPL, Ron provides his expertise on a variety of topics, including his thesis topic of active surface. Ron says, “Active surface applies to radio telescopes similar to the way adaptive optics works on optical telescopes. A telescope mirror needs to focus and the larger the mirror, the harder it is to get the mirror to focus precisely.
“Additionally, the atmosphere is very turbulent and adaptive optics utilizing computer programs to maneuver the mirror in very small adjustments all over the surface of the mirror. Adaptive optics corrects for turbulence in the atmosphere and imperfections in the mirror.
“Active surface is similar only for radio telescopes; radio telescopes must maintain a perfect parabolic shape or the focus will be off. Radio telescopes are even larger than optical telescopes and need even more correction to focus the telescope.
“Radio telescopes are so large they are affected by manufacturing imperfections, gravity, wind and weather, and temperature. Active surface uses computers to maneuver the telescope in tiny movements in order to shape the radio telescope.
“For our Lunar Crater Radio Telescope that is one kilometer in size, the temperature on the Moon will have the greatest effect in deformation of the telescope. The temperature swings on the lunar surface are extreme, ranging from minus 173 degrees Celsius to more than 127 degrees Celsius. These temperature swings greatly affect the shape of the telescope. Active surface simply corrects for imperfections in the telescope’s surface of the telescope by computer actuation and in LCRT’s case, extending or retracting the tension on the mesh cable.”
He has also branched out to research lunar dust mitigation, solar radiation effects, radio interference, anchoring systems, robotic concepts, Arecibo modeling, terrestrial laser scanner systems and outreach programs.
Ron says, “Our project was successful in gaining NASA’s Phase II in their Innovative Advanced Concepts program, and we are funded for another two years. This project has been published in many magazines and journals and even made the news at CNN.
“JPL thought enough of what I learned at the university to bring me on as part of their team. LCRT is a great project and was a unique fit for my thesis.”
The Importance of Networking and Persevering through an Academic Program
Ron emphasizes the importance of networking. He notes, “Scientists, astronomers, physicists, and professionals are happy when you ask them questions and show interest in a common field. I learned that most people are very proud of what they do, and there is a tremendous wealth of knowledge to be tapped.”
Ron also recommends persevering in your academic program. He says that one of the challenges he faced in his master’s program was writing papers for the first time in a long time. Ron worked really hard, and he proved to himself that he could complete an academic program with all As.
In his free time, Ron participates in CrossFit. Ron has been doing CrossFit since 2014, and he says that it has gotten him into the best shape of his life.
Ron plans to continue flying for three more years, and he will continue to work with JPL for at least two more years. He says, “Now, space exploration is really expanding and taking off. I would sure like to see us land on Mars in my lifetime.”
If you look up in the sky and see an American Airlines passenger jet, be sure to wave and say hello to Ron.