Frank Martin (’71)

Category: Accomplished Alumni | Awards

Frank Martin began attending Pfeiffer College in 1962 with plans of becoming a high school science teacher. But those plans changed when he took an interest in becoming a college professor. His mentor at Pfeiffer imparted a passion for astronomy, the planets (especially Mars), and telescopes. It was the early days of manned spaceflight, and Martin grew interested in space exploration.
He earned a degree in physics and in mathematics from Pfeiffer in 1966. In his senior year Martin got a recruiting visit from UT physics professor Alvin Nielsen.

“He offered me a national defense fellowship for the first year of my PhD and a summer job at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory,” says Martin. “The fellowship funding came from the National Defense Educational Act, which was created by Congress to compete with the Soviet Union in space. My last two years at UT, I did research on ultrasonics and underwater acoustics, sponsored by the US Office of Naval Research. Without those programs, I probably would have gone on to teach high school.”

After Martin received his PhD in physics from UT in 1971, he landed a job with Lockheed planning orbital and surface science investigations for the Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 moon missions. In 1973, at the end of Apollo 17, Martin became a physicist with the US Naval Oceanographic Office, conducting lab and ocean acoustics research. After a little more than a year, NASA called to offer him a job in the Office of Space Science where in 1979 he was appointed director of astrophysics at its headquarters in Washington.

“There wasn’t a lot of what I would call adult supervision, providing great freedom to work with the research community to develop major space missions,” says Martin, who also directed solar and terrestrial physics and managed numerous research and flight programs, including the development of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Martin directed space and earth sciences at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, from 1983 to 1986. In 1986, he became deputy associate administrator for the early development of the space station before assuming the role of assistant administrator for human exploration, which included planning for future moon and Mars missions. In 1990, Martin left NASA to become a director of civil space for Lockheed Martin, which included servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, the robotic Lunar Prospector Mission, and the Spitzer Space Telescope among other projects.

In 2001, Martin retired from Lockheed Martin and moved with his wife, Pam, back to North Carolina, where he began a career as a consultant. Drawing on his expertise from decades of planning and carrying out complex missions, Martin reviews NASA space flight projects. In addition, he served on several National Academy studies including the 2015 Pathways report which laid out the rational for human exploration beyond low earth orbit. He also conducts team-building workshops based on NASA’s 4-D Systems, which were originally developed and designed to enhance team performance and reduce risk on NASA missions.

“So much of team building comes from the power of social context,” says Martin. “It explains why some teams do well and some struggle. To truly work together, team members need to understand each other—the different aspects of our personalities cause us to see things differently. The 4-D Systems provide the tools to do that, and NASA’s track record shows that they work.”

With the popularity of the National Geographic TV series Mars and movies like The Martian, the Red Planet is in the public imagination. In a recent talk at Pfeiffer, Martin offered facts and figures about its climate and characteristics showing that while Mars is a hostile environment, it is the most habitable of the other planets. He shared the information NASA has compiled about the possibilities of living on Mars and showed a photo of the Martian landscape, taken by robots, saying, “It looks like the American Southwest without all the snakes and cacti.” Pointing out the vastness of space, Martin then quoted Carl Sagan, who said, “The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.”