Launching Satellites and Careers: Meet Howard Michel '75

Alumnus Howard Michel visiting the pre-Columbian city of Teotihuacan in Mexico.

It’s hard to imagine a more vivid advertisement for the versatility of an engineering degree than Howard E. Michel. Since graduating nearly 40 years ago, the electrical engineering major has flown B-52 bombers, launched satellites, devised systems software for the US Air Force, and is now training future engineers as an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

Recently elected president of IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional association, Michel says it is now his mandate to ensure that the organization’s 400,000 members in more than 180 countries navigate just as dexterously through the dynamic and sometimes fitful waters of work life.

“We can’t promise job security, but we provide the tools that can guarantee career security,” asserts Michel, who took the organization’s measure early on as student chapter chair for Newark College of Engineering.

Slated to head the association in 2015, he will spend the next year as president-elect mulling vehicles for professional development, as well as strategies for raising the IEEE’s visibility and clout around the globe. Among other approaches, he plans to expand offerings such as “Smart Tech” workshops, forums on topics ranging from software engineering to Smart Grid systems that encourage members from a variety of disciplines to learn about technologies outside of their expertise, to stay abreast of developments in their fields, and to network with other professionals.

“These workshops showcase the best of IEEE though a partnership of our local volunteers, our technical experts from around the globe, and staff from the Piscataway headquarters,” he says. Visiting the pre-Columbian city of Teotihuacan in Mexico.

A firm believer in professional development who went on to earn two master’s degrees – in systems management and electrical and computer engineering – and a PhD in computer science and engineering, Michel says he puts a lot of stock, however, in the power of “a good solid engineering degree to prepare you for pretty much anything.” In his case, this entailed flying supersonic jets just two years after graduation.

“There is nothing like the thrill of flying a plane with a 200-foot wingspan 400 feet above the ground at 350 knots,” he says of the experience, while adding of the skills required to manage complicated instruments and understand complex systems like the weather: “Who better than an engineer?”

Calling the military “a great career” for an engineer, he notes, “You really do have access to the best toys.” After his stint as a jet pilot, he moved on to rockets. He devised, among other devices, a distributive instrumentation system of sensors (later patented) to study the impact of the acoustic and seismic waves released by Shuttle launches at Vandenberg Air Force Base on buildings in the vicinity of a launch pad and the equipment stored in them, including satellites.

Much of his work had Cold War security applications, including developing systems to identify low-flying stealth aircraft and instruments to detect whether military trucks were carrying real or fake missiles. “The thinking was to create missile motorcades to prevent our enemies from figuring out which trucks had the actual missiles and so we worked on ways of disguising them,” he notes.

He also worked on sensors to measure continental movements known as “earth tides.”

“If you’re sending ballistic missiles 8,000 miles around the earth, or cruise missiles hundreds of miles along the earth, you need to chart their path with absolute precision. If the earth moves even a little, the precise direction of gravity changes, and this can put them off course,” he says.

Later, as satellite launch director and chief of the payloads branch at Vandenberg, he oversaw seven launches, including civilian satellites for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that up until recently were used in tracking storms such as Sandy. And in 1990, he supervised the first US commercial satellite launches in China under a novel cost-cutting initiative urged by Reagan administration officials who decided that US launches were too expensive. The State Department quickly embraced the idea, but the Pentagon was initially aghast, he recalls.

“As a military officer, my task was to ensure a safe and successful launch, while at the same time not compromising either country’s technologies,” he recounts. “There were large meetings with Chinese and American engineers assembled around a table, and one of my jobs was to listen in. Periodically, I’d have to call a time-out.”

After his promotion to a policy job developing open-system standards for the mission-critical computer systems embedded in planes, ships, and tanks in order to promote competition and drive down costs, he found the work somewhat less gripping.

“The higher you rise, the further away you are from the interesting toys. I realized I hadn’t done much engineering for more than a decade,” recounts Michel, whose boyish enthusiasm for all things gadgetry includes fond memories of the indoor ski machine at NCE where he learned to make turns by sinking his edges into a carpet-covered roller.

“You could still fall. I tore a hole in the knee of my pants hitting the carpet,” he laughs, recalling the fragility of the era’s synthetic fabrics. “Everything back then was polyester – so 70s.” So he earned his PhD and headed back to academia, where he teaches, among other budding engineers, senior design teams comprised of electrical, computer and mechanical engineers working on “real projects from clients that involve system engineering.” One of these teams took a first prize at an IEEE student-design competition at Rochester Institute of Technology for creating back lighting for televisions known as “mood lighting.”

“They learn to ask the right questions – not about how they’re going to start building right off the bat, but what it is exactly that they are building. I get a kick out of watching students make the transition from thinking they know engineering to actually knowing it,” he says.

Michel says he encourages his students to join IEEE.

“As an undergraduate at NCE, the branch advisor took me to local meetings, and that allowed me to start networking with professional engineers,” he recalls, adding, “As my career varied, I saw different values in my membership. When I was a pilot I stayed connected to engineering through publications like SPECTRUM magazine, and as a research engineer at the Geophysics Lab, IEEE Transactions had state-of-the-art research. Now teaching engineering design, IEEE standards are key.”

Of his ascent over the years from student chapter chair to president, he notes with a chuckle, “Not bad!”

T. Regan

From the Winter 2014 NJIT Magazine