Stellar Career

By Tad Vezner

Daniel Eckhardt (EE, AMAT ’12)

SOME PEOPLE ASPIRE TO MOVE mountains. But Daniel Eckhardt (EE, AMAT ’12) aspires even higher: he wants to move spacecraft into the stars.

And he’s well on his way.

When it comes to the technology powering the spacecraft of the United States Air Force and Space Force, as well as numerous other governmental, academic, and industry partners, Eckhardt is at the apex of his field. He has gone from leading a team, to being a Pentagon adviser, to ascending to his current role as principal expert for in-space propulsion at the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Eckhardt is the U.S. military’s go-to math whiz when it comes to pushing metal through space. Whether it be augmenting the Space Force’s own orbital assets, helping with NASA’s ongoing Artemis program to put more people on the moon, or advising allied countries, Eckhardt may not have a career that is quite as vast as space itself, but it’s as broad as any career can be.

“It’s serving a customer with vast interests. Any technology you can think of, we have someone thinking about it,” Eckhardt says about his work at the research laboratory, which has a workforce of 12,500 people across nine locations. “Our work does matter, because you do see it affecting our national security. Getting to see my work being useful is a big aspect of what keeps me here.”

Also, he gets to apply the “pure math” he fell in love with while studying at Illinois Institute of Technology.

“Math makes sense,” he says. “It’s one of those weird things: a lot of people find it weird when I say, ‘math makes sense,’ but it really does. It’s beautiful.”

In the midst of all that pure math, Eckhardt found fascinating applications. One, in particular, stood out—space plasmas—and he hoped to apply it in a significant way.

There are two types of ways you can move in space, Eckhardt explains. You can go fast with chemical thrusters that put out big, sudden bursts of acceleration. Or you can go slowly and efficiently with electric propulsion.

Eckhardt initially focused on the electric option. When he started at the Air Force lab in 2020, he was the design lead for systems that use solar power to generate enough electricity to transform a noble gas into a plasma propellant for spacecraft.

But he now has to be an expert in both. After being tapped for a role at the Pentagon as special assistant to the chief scientist of the Air Force—advising principally on issues of space, but also on such things as command, control and communications, and artificial intelligence—he became the laboratory’s main technical adviser for all of in-space propulsion in 2023.

He’s now the principal investigator for three research projects that focus on optimizing in-space propulsion devices, as well as detecting space debris.

On top of tackling near-term problems—building hardware, then demonstrating it in space—Eckhardt says, “We do basic science, looking at fundamental problems with no current direct application but a time horizon 30 years out.”

As far as his career goes, Eckhardt says, it’s hard to see one past that.