COLUMBIA — Greg Heifner began to tear up as he walked through the halls of NASA's Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in late November. He pinched himself to make sure he wasn't dreaming as he passed walls covered with photos of his childhood heroes, including pioneering astronauts Neil Armstrong and Gus Grissom.
Heifner, 59, a self-described "geek and sci-fi nerd," grew up during NASA's Apollo era and said he always has been fascinated with space and science. But he didn't have the grades to make it as a NASA engineer, so he started working in satellite communications.
"I figured sending and receiving signals from satellites in orbit was the closest I could get to space," Heifner, of Columbia, said.
In 2008, though, Heifner realized his dream. He got a chance to work with NASA when the space agency sought out and offered his company, Orbital Data Network, a contract to develop satellite technology for use during the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory.
The new Mars probe, which Heifner said is about the size of a compact car, is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator that contains 10 pounds of radioactive material, a non-explosive isotope of plutonium, Pu-238. Heifner's job was to help create a satellite communication system that worked with air-breathing robots developed by Canberra Corp. to detect any radiation that might escape during the launch and to relay information about it to NASA in real time.
Heifner's Orbital Data Network also was in charge of training NASA employees on how to use and set up the system.
Jim Angell, 55, is the company's lead engineer, and he was the point man on training and deploying the satellite security system.
"The amount of organization and planning at NASA was incredible," Angell said. "It was funny, because there was over three years of effort all for the first 60 seconds of the launch."
The satellite security system proved a success both at the test launch and at the actual launch, which took place at Cape Canaveral on Nov. 26.
Heifner said the successful partnership with NASA is only the beginning. There are applications for the system all over the world. It might have proved useful, for example, after Japan's Fukushima nuclear reactor was damaged by an earthquake and tsunami in March. Areas affected by harmful radiological leaks could be detected without having to put people in them.
Orbital Data Network isn't Heifer’s first satellite communication company. He started Heifner Communications in the 1980s. It worked with larger corporations such as Viacom to provide cable television in rural areas, primarily to hotels and motels. A forerunner to companies such as DirecTV and The Dish Network, it used satellites to send cable signals to dishes in those areas.
In 1999, Heifner went public with that company. It had more than 46 employees in three locations and was serving more than 1 million customers, including not only hotels and motels but also hospitals and military bases.
Soon after going public, Heifner sold his shares and retired. "I didn’t really like working for a public company, and I felt like I wasn’t in control of my own destiny."
Heifner came out of retirement in 2002, however, prompted by the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. A licensed pilot, he was grounded in Denver after the attacks.
"I spent a week in my hotel room in Denver thinking about what I could do," he said, adding that he was upset by the fact that firefighters and police lost the ability to communicate because their land mobile radio access had been destroyed.
"Whenever terrestrial land lines are destroyed and wireless systems are down, you will always have satellites in orbit to use for communication," Heifner said.
He decided to start Orbital Data Network and begin designing a critical response emergency network. Instead of providing entertainment to his customers, he would be providing them security.
After Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana State Highway Patrol issued a request for proposals seeking a system that would fix communication problems caused by the storm.
"Not only were telephone wires and communication towers destroyed during the hurricane, but trees that (were) blown over ripped up the fiber-optic wires." Heifner said. "There was a total loss of communication in some parts of the state."
Competition for the job was stiff. "There were 30 some proposals from vendors across the country, and they chose us," Heifner said.
Heifner's company created a system that uses mobile and stationary satellite systems to maintain communications until other technologies can be repaired.
"When Hurricane Ike and Gustav hit — after the ODN satellite system had been put in place — (that) was the first time the Louisiana State Highway Patrol experienced no loss of communication," Heifner said of the 2008 storms.
Heifner said the emergency satellite system has continued to evolve and has been implemented in Missouri, Florida, Illinois and Minnesota. There are plans to put it in place in Texas, Alaska and Arkansas.
Military, national and state agencies make up the majority of the company's clientele. It was recommendations by those groups that prompted NASA to contact Heifner.
"When I started work at NASA, I finally was someplace where I felt I fit in," Heifner said. "It was great for everyone who worked with the project."
Angell said the NASA job was the most important he's ever done. "Well, maybe more important when it comes to number of lives saved, but never one as important to me."
Heifner said working with NASA helped him realize that he's accomplished a big goal in his life.
"I get to go to my grave knowing I worked with my heroes."