Master of the Universe
Ed Reynolds is saving Earth one asteroid at a time.
by Amanda Loudin
A typical evening out for Ed Reynolds, M.S. ’13, does not include rubbing elbows with the likes of Beyoncé, Aubrey Plaza or Brittney Griner, but he found himself in their company last April. “TIME” named Reynolds one of its “100 Most Influential People of 2023” for his lead role in developing and launching NASA’s DART mission, and that’s how he landed on the red carpet at Lincoln Center in New York City.
DART, which stands for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, was the first ever mission to demonstrate that humans could deflect an asteroid if needed in order to protect Earth.
After a decade in the works, DART caught the world’s attention in September 2022 when it proved its ability to significantly slow an asteroid’s speed. The DART spacecraft was traveling at 14,000 miles per hour when it deliberately collided with Dimorphos, an asteroid the size of an Egyptian pyramid or small stadium, about 7 million miles away from Earth. The collision changed Dimorphos’ orbital period by 33 minutes.
It was the first time in history humans were able to change the orbit of a celestial body, and its success marked the first demonstration of a planetary defense system by NASA.
“This mission shows that NASA is trying to be ready for whatever the universe throws at us. NASA has proven we are serious as a defender of the planet,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “This is a watershed moment for planetary defense and all of humanity, demonstrating commitment from NASA’s exceptional team and partners from around the world.”
DART was envisioned and led by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL), and the project capped Reynolds’ nearly 40-year career at APL, the nation’s largest university-affiliated research center.
Reynolds joined APL in 1985 after earning an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech. He landed in APL’s space department and began work on a small polar satellite. Its intent was to understand communication dropouts caused by auroral phenomenon. Other early projects included work on the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative and partner projects with Russian space teams.
Around 1990, Reynolds and APL got their first shot at partnering with NASA on a planetary mission.
As part of that partnership, Reynolds began work on the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission, NASA’s first mission to orbit and land on an asteroid.
“NEAR orbited the asteroid Eros for a year before landing on it and collecting valuable data,” he said.
Since then, APL teams have completed missions to Pluto, Mercury, around the sun and more. Along the way, Reynolds earned a master’s in project management from GW’s School of Business.
“It was a great fit for me,” Reynolds said. “They had a formalized program for the work I was already doing, and it was strong in all the areas I needed.
“The best class I had was statistics, and the decision optimization class I took was really useful,” he added. “The degree formalized my training, and both NASA and APL recognized that.”
When APL team members began exploring the idea of somehow preventing a major asteroid from causing a catastrophic collision with Earth, the team was well positioned to take it on.
“The idea of planetary defense has been floating around for a long time,” Reynolds said. “In 1908, an asteroid hit Siberia and flattened everything within a 50-mile radius. We’re just lucky it wasn’t in a populated area.”
Reynolds on the day of the DART launch, Nov. 23, 2021, at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
A much smaller asteroid (about 20 meters in size) exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013. Shortly after that event, NASA formed the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which funded the DART mission.
NASA initially tried collaborating with a European team, but when the European funding dried up, NASA decided to keep going with APL.
Reynolds entered the DART project as project manager in 2019 and fostered it to success last fall. As manager, he led hundreds of team members from APL, industry, academia and government worldwide.
“Every time we had a fork in the road and options on the level of rigor, we chose more rigor. For instance, if we considered changing the thermal control settings using software, we then tested it to greatly increase the odds we could hit the asteroid,” he said.
During the “cruise” phase, which spanned the 10 months it took to reach the asteroid, they used Jupiter and some of its moons as proxies for Dimorphos. That system allowed them to test the camera and algorithms to hit the asteroid.
“It was a huge success,” he said, “and it became a big milestone event. The entire planet has a vested interest in this—earthlings now have a tool in the toolbox should a real asteroid threat show up. It was a joy and relief that it all worked out so successfully.”
Photography: Ed Whitman, JHU/APL