Skip to Navigation Skip to Page Content
Portrait of Dan O'Shaughnessy

Mechanical and aerospace engineering alumnus Dan O’Shaughnessy started off with a fellowship at NASA and now serves as the spacecraft MESSENGER’s system engineer. Photo courtesy of Dan O’Shaughnessy

Very few people get to list “guided a spacecraft to Mercury” on their resumes. On the hierarchy of potential life experiences, it sits in the “rarest of the rare” category.

Yet, it’s prime accomplishment real estate Dan O’Shaughnessy can lay claim to. O’Shaughnessy — who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering from MU in 1996 and 2000, respectively — is the mission systems engineer for the “MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging,” or MESSENGER, mission.

NASA artist's concept shows the MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around Mercury. of MESSENGER spacecraft orbiting Mercury.

An artist’s concept shows the MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around Mercury. Photo by NASA

The mission’s goal from its launch in 2004 was to “conduct the first orbital study of the innermost planet,” and it is a cooperative effort between NASA, the Carnegie Institution for Science and O’Shaughnessy’s employer, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The team successfully became the first to have a craft orbit the planet, and MESSENGER has completed more than 3,500 turns around the planet nearest the sun.

O’Shaughnessy’s interest in engineering started out like many others’ — a natural curiosity about how machines worked.

“I wasn’t afraid to go in there with a wrench and break it, though I was always more interested in taking things apart and understanding how they worked rather than putting them back together — which probably means there was a lot of broken stuff at my parents’ house for a long time,” O’Shaughnessy said.

The Missouri-born and raised O’Shaughnessy and his family eventually moved to Columbia, where he attended Hickman High School before heading to Northeast Missouri State (now Truman State) for two years before transferring to MU. Upon earning his bachelor’s degree, he started working in construction management at the university while he decided what to do next, including potentially heading elsewhere for grad school. A chance encounter with a bulletin board pointed him in a different direction than he anticipated.

“One day, I was walking through the engineering building, and a flier on the wall said they were looking for interns to do NASA work,” he said. “If there was ever one moment that I can point to that was sort of a seminal moment, it was that. I pulled a tab off, called him, and he was happy to work with me.”

The “him” O’Shaughnessy referred to was Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Craig Kluever, who worked in space shuttle guidance, navigation and control for Rockwell International before being hired by MU.

“If it wasn’t for Craig, I wouldn’t be here; I wouldn’t be doing any of the things that I’ve been doing,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It’s not stretching the truth at all to say everything I learned in grad school, I use on a daily basis. Everything Craig taught me, I use on a daily basis to be successful in my career.”

As part of his graduate studies, O’Shaughnessy spent time in a fellowship program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., continuing the research he was doing with Kluever as well as pitching in on other projects of interest to the center. As it turned out, the father of his fellowship adviser worked at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, so O’Shaughnessy sent in a resume. His work with Kluever turned out to be his in.

“They had a greybeard at APL who was very aware of what Dr. Kluever was doing, and he wanted one of [Kluever’s] students to come and work there because he was interested in the kind of work Dr. Kluever was doing,” O’Shaughnessy said.

O’Shaughnessy immediately was placed on the nascent MESSENGER mission, and he’s been involved with it ever since, moving from a guidance and control analyst, to the lead engineer for the guidance and control team, to his current role as the program’s system engineer. He led the team in developing a navigation method using solar radiation pressure to aid in controlling the path of the spacecraft.

“It’s really nice to see the fruits of your labor operating and making it work,” he said.

Flying the craft is one of the more exciting experiences of his career. O’Shaughnessy said he appreciates the ability to get immediate feedback on how well he’s doing, adding that the craft is pretty quick to point out his mistakes, making flight the kind of challenge he enjoys.

“There’s a reason space flight isn’t cheap,” he said. “The physics of the problem is just hard. It’s hard to get something into orbit, and it’s hard to have the vehicle operate successfully in a very harsh environment where you have limited communication with it.  The spacecraft has to be able to take care of itself, and I think that’s the challenge, really.”

In preparation for the rocket burn that put MESSENGER into orbit about Mercury, though, he was admittedly nervous because of the all or nothing nature of space flight.

“We had one chance to get it right,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It’s the kind of event where you’re planning literally for years, working through every possible contingency circumstance you can think of. You always recognize you can’t test everything; there are always going to be things out there that you don’t know you don’t know it, so how can you possibly test for it?

“A lot of other events were nerve-wracking, but if you screw them up, it’s not the end of the mission. It may delay or cut things short, or maybe force you to do more work.”

O’Shaughnessy said one of the most enjoyable aspects of MESSENGER for the last decade has been working with a quality team. For his work, he recently received the inaugural Heinlein Award, created to recognize “space-tested technologies that can benefit commercial space activities.” The award is named for Missouri native and author Robert A. Heinlein and his wife, Virginia.

His relationship with his team made him admittedly uncomfortable being honored alone.

“I feel a little bit like I’m being singled out for the work of a lot of people,” he said. “It’s not like I just went off and did the work in a vacuum. You watch people speak at the Oscars and list 50 different people you’ve never heard of, and quite frankly, that’s sort of the scenario here. I didn’t do this by myself.”

O’Shaughnessy doesn’t know what mission he’ll work on after MESSENGER ends next spring, but he’s sure his engineering background from Mizzou will give him the tools necessary to tackle whatever project comes at him. Success is all about what you’re willing to put into your education, he said.

“Engineering in general, you kind of specialize in one discipline, but even in that specialization, those skills have broad applicability,” he said.

“Mizzou prepares you well as long as you’re willing to do the work. All of (the work I’m doing) is based on the foundation I got from Mizzou.”