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Professor John Junkins

The Eagle, By KENNY WILEY  

John Junkins was barely out of high school when he heard President John F. Kennedy, in May 1961, call for a commitment to put an American man on the moon before the end of the decade — and, a year later, deliver his “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice Stadium in Houston.

Kennedy’s words — and the advice of his high school football coach to put his mind to use — propelled Junkins from promising high school athlete to an illustrious academic career in astronautics.

His work has supported numerous spaceflight missions including the final three Apollo missions (Apollo 15, 16 and 17). He wrote a pioneering paper in 1977 that provided an algorithm allowing on-board, real-time star pattern identification that could be used for space flight navigation. His ideas and algorithms have been implemented on more than a dozen missions over the past four decades.

“In some sense, my life has been following my coach’s advice and being inspired by John Kennedy as well,” Junkins said in a Friday interview. “I’ve been surfing on a wave of enthusiasm ever since and it’s been an amazing ride.”

Junkins, now a University Distinguished Professor in the department of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University and the director of the Hagler Institute for Advanced Study, received the Robert H. Goddard Astronautics Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics on May 15.

The award is the highest honor in the field of astronautics, and has been conferred in its current form since 1975. Former winners include Werner von Braun and Theodore von Karman. Astronautics is the science and technology of space travel and exploration.

“It means a lot, because it means that through the more foundational things that I’m writing and publishing — many times I do contribute to missions, but I’m doing so from a university setting,” Junkins said. “The academics who get this award typically are not very visible to the general public.”

Junkins’ areas of focus include dynamics and spacecraft control, sensor technology, and guidance and navigation.

“The field of astronautics is associated with flying in space, basically,” Junkins said. “And everything to do with that, from navigation — where am I, how am I pointed, how do I change my path and how do I cooperate with Mother Nature.”

“How to make spacecraft smart, in some sense, is a lot of what I do,” he said. “They’re fascinating problems and they’re the kind of thing that some nights, you literally can’t sleep because the problems are intriguing and exciting to work on.”

Junkins grew up with his parents and siblings in and around Dalton, Georgia, which is the seat of Whitfield County in the hilly northwest part of the state. He said he became the first person from his county to earn a doctorate.

Despite enduring poverty as a child, Junkins said that he and his siblings “were wealthy in the most important sense,” and credited his parents for modeling a strong ethic.

“My autobiography, if it’s ever written, would be titled Out of Appalachia,” Junkins said. “[My parents] were both very bright people and they were transformational figures in the lives of their five children, who are well educated.”

Junkins played football and ran track in high school, and signed a letter of intent to play football at Clemson University before a high school coach encouraged him to use his mind foremost to forge his career path.

He attended Berry College before graduating from Auburn University on Dec. 17, 1965 — nine days before he got married. His first teaching appointment came at the University of Virginia and, at age 34, he became a full professor at Virginia Tech, where he worked from 1977 until 1985. In 1985, Herbert Richardson, then the dean of the A&M College of Engineering, recruited Junkins to A&M as the first endowed chair holder in engineering.

“[Richardson] described an ambitious plan to grow and strengthen the research muscle of the College of Engineering,” Junkins said. “His plans impressed me deeply and I decided to accept the challenge to join him in that quest.”

Junkins has directed 60 doctoral candidates. He said he values being a mentor, and has continued his teaching and research activities even as his career brought the opportunity to lead the Hagler Institute for Advanced Study.

“I think the quality of mentoring that I got at crucial times in my life helped educate me in how to be a good mentor,” he said.

In the late 1990s, Junkins helped found the Hagler Institute, which works to draw top scholars from around the world to A&M. He said that the Hagler Institute and the Chancellor’s Research Initiative, among other enterprises, have contributed to Texas A&M’s growth as a research power.

N.K. Anand, an A&M professor and the executive associate dean of engineering, praised Junkins’ international reputation and said that his passion for mentoring students has shined through. Anand credited Junkins for “doggedly pursuing” the Hagler Institute and for articulating how it would benefit the university and Texas A&M University System.

“He has been a good mentor and a good colleague, a good senior colleague,” Anand said. “His legacy is very long-lasting.”

“He’s committed to Aggieland, he’s passionate about moving the needle for the College of Engineering, and he cares about people and about mentorship,” Anand said.