William J. O'Neil

For his significant contributions to the exploration of the Moon, Mars, and Jupiter, the Schools of Engineering are proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to William J. O'Neil.

Manager, Project Galileo
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
BSAE '61

O'Neil bust

On his Purdue years

The aeronautics and engineering sciences curriculum was among the toughest at Purdue. With 20 or 21 units per semester, I was really under the gun. I had been a rebel in high school, and several of my teachers predicted I would flunk out of college. I was bound and determined to do well at Purdue, to show my teachers they were wrong about me and especially to avoid embarrassing my parents in our small town, because my success was so important to them. My parents were heavy participants in this and supported my wife and the two children we had while at Purdue. I worked two jobs during the summers to be able to afford college. I was very proud of graduating from Purdue with distinction-as second out of 75 in our aero class-and proud that my parents were there to see that happen.

On the responsibilities and challenges of his work

I am the person responsible for the entire Galileo project, so Harry Truman's line "The buck stops here" applies. [Project Galileo sent the first entry probe and orbiter to Jupiter.] My main interest is in identifying where the technical threats to the project might be and where the most difficult challenges are.

Young O'Neil with his family

One incident in particular illustrates the challenges that we face. Galileo's tape recorder is the bulk storage device that holds images and other science data until they can be compressed and sent to Earth over the low-gain antenna. Any images, except those taken for optical navigation, are incrementally read from the tape recorder and compressed into far fewer bits than would otherwise be required.

Talk about trauma! Two months before our December 1995 arrival at Jupiter, we recorded three filtered images of the planet with two of its satellites in view. These were to be played back and processed into a color image of Jupiter-the only approach image-from Galileo before the spacecraft went into orbit: a historic image. When we commanded the tape to rewind, just as you would on your VCR to play back the programming you'd just recorded, the signals were that the tape recorder was continuing to rewind.

That conjured up all sorts of ideas-like the tape had broken! In fact, it was hard to imagine that the recorder wasn't broken, given the symptoms. You can't fix anything like this, of course, a half-billion miles away from the earth.

But in the space of three days-thinking the recorder was broken (happily it wasn't)-we invented a way to get pictures back by using the central computer only. And this goes back to the challenge of our work. It's often thought that once these projects are launched, everything is routine. It's anything but routine. You have to solve very interesting technology problems under tight schedule pressures. We do some of the greatest Sherlock Holmes work you can imagine.

On Galileo's arrival at Jupiter

The arrival at Jupiter in 1995 was the ultimate. The delivery of the probe into Jupiter's atmosphere; the relay link, that is, the orbiter catching the transmission from the probe in real time; the burning of our main engine for nearly an hour to get into orbit-all had to work properly, or we would have lost a major part, possibly all, of the mission. It was a do-or-die situation.

I thought that there might be a sense of relaxation among the staff now that Galileo is at Jupiter, but we are on a marathon through the end of 1997, and our encounters with the Jovian satellites come fast and furious. We're in a continual process of writing instructions and radioing them up to the central computer to command the spacecraft. I'm surprised how traumatic each encounter becomes. We don't want to lose any data. We give it our all. The continuing success of Galileo and its proposed extended mission through the year 2000 are my greatest concerns.

On challenges facing the Jet Propulsion Lab

The challenge ahead is to properly harness the exploding technology to do the best possible deep-space exploration at acceptable cost without major failures. The cost-risk-performance trade-offs are tougher now than ever. We're directed to do more with less and take more risks as appropriate.

On his involvement in The Galileo Conference

In January of this year I traveled to the University of Padova-Galileo's university-to attend a conference on Galileo the man, Galileo the spacecraft, and the Galileo telescope being built by the Italians on the Canary Islands. Galileo discovered the major moons of Jupiter in Padova in 1610 on the same night in January that we were at this conference. As part of the proceedings, I received an honorary doctorate in astronomy. The conclusion of the conference was at the Vatican, where we had a papal audience. I presented the pope with an album of the most spectacular images that the Galileo spacecraft had taken. When he saw them, his response was, "Wow!"



Recipient of honorary doctorate in astronomy from the University of Padova, Italy.
Manager, Project Galileo, Jet Propulsion Lab. Responsible for entire project but focuses on identifying technical threats to the project and isolating challenges. Lectures worldwide to technical and lay audiences on the project.
Named an Aviation Week & Space Technology laureate for Project Galileo's delivery to Jupiter.
NASA Group Achievement Award for Galileo's Ida encounter and Dactyl discovery.
NASA Group Achievement Award for Galileo's 1991 Gaspra encounter.
Aviation Week & Space Technology laurels, Project Galileo.
NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, Project Galileo.
Aviation Week & Space Technology laurels, Project Galileo.
Science and Mission Design Manager, Project Galileo. Responsibilities included orbiter science instrument development and trajectory design.
NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, Viking Project.
Mission Design Department Manager. Responsible for mission design for all JPL projects. Oversaw staff members working on design of Project Galileo during its development phase.
Chief of Navigation, Viking project (first U.S. landing on Mars).
NASA Group Achievement Award, Surveyor Project.
Positions at JPL included Surveyor Trajectory and Performance Engineer and Chief of Navigation for Mariner Mars '71.

BSAE '61, Purdue; MSAE '67, University of Southern California; NASA Management Education Program, 1985; NASA Senior Executive Program, 1988