• Glen Fountain, project manager for New Horizons, was one of 14 students graduating in 1960 from the high school in Arlington.

  • Glen Fountain, member of Arlington high school class of 1960, is project manager on New Horizons, which was first spacecraft to explore Pluto.

Arlington native with familiar Fountain name is Pluto mission's project manager

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Summer family vacations to Colorado led Glen Fountain to think the state would be the ideal place to work.

After the Arlington native graduated from Kansas State University in 1966 with a master's degree in electrical engineering, he interviewed for jobs in Colorado. But then he was impressed when he interviewed for an opening at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. He took it. After five years, he figured, he would go to Colorado.

He never moved. But he went far.

Fountain is project manager for NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto. Nine and a half years after New Horizons was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the spacecraft flew within 8,000 miles of Pluto on Tuesday.

"It's a great capstone to a career," he said.

Arlington connections

Fountain, son of the late Vern and Marguerite Fountain, still owns the farm south of Arlington that's been in the family for generations. Kim Krehbiel is in charge of farming the land.

"I got a call the other day," Fountain said in a phone interview Wednesday about the wheat crop and prices.

Fountain also owns the family home on Lincoln Street in Arlington. His brother, Galen Fountain, lives in Virginia, but there are numerous cousins in Reno County. Former Reno County Sheriff Jim Fountain is a relation, and Arlington Mayor Jeff Fountain is a relative, too.

Jeff Fountain's mother, Kay Webber Fountain, was a classmate of Glen Fountain's in Arlington High School's graduating class in 1960. That class had fewer than 15 students. The last senior class at Arlington High graduated in 1964. Students in the area now attend Fairfield High School.

"We're really proud of him," Kay Fountain said.

Glen Fountain has spoken at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, 1100 N. Plum St., and at K-State. One of his trips back home included the Memorial Day weekend all-school reunion in 2010 – for his 50-year high school gathering.

Fountain said he will formally "semi-retire" at the end of this year. One trip he's planning in 2016 is a return to Arlington to let his nephew's son experience wheat harvest.

Collier's magazine

Starting in 1952, Collier's magazine ran space travel articles, some written by rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.

"I was a 10-year-old kid, and I was fascinated by those articles," said Fountain, whose mother was the longtime librarian in Arlington.

Fountain didn't own a telescope, but there was an astronomy club in Hutchinson that offered a summer course. "Someone had an 8-inch reflector, and we went out and saw the rings of Saturn," Fountain said. "That just solidified my interest."

After high school, Fountain proceeded to Hutchinson Community College for two years.

"I thought that was a great path for me," he said. The cost was minimal and he saved money by remaining home and commuting to college. He completed college at K-State.

Back east, Fountain met his future wife, Sharon, and at the Johns Hopkins lab, he worked with its space projects.

"I got involved in a lot of NASA missions," he said. He found management duties expanding, too.

"After a while, you end up taking broader responsibilities," he said. As years passed and others left the lab for other jobs, Fountain said, he would look around and conclude: "I have such a great job. Why would I leave?

Pluto flyby

There have been attempts since 1989 to mount a mission to Pluto, which is more than 3 billion miles from Earth. The discovery of other objects in the Kuiper Belt in the 1990s increased interest. In 2000, NASA decided to seek partners for the exploration of Pluto.

"I could say I started in November 2000," Fountain said of his work on the Pluto mission.

Johns Hopkins teamed with Southwest Research Institute and made its case to NASA. That was a scramble. Another rush followed as the selected team aimed for a rocket launch in January 2006.

Because of the alignment of Earth, Jupiter and Pluto in early 2006, the spacecraft could get a slingshot gravitational boost around Jupiter and speed toward Pluto. Missing the launch window, however, would delay the encounter with Pluto until 2020.

A nuclear reactor power system required satisfying safety concerns. The greatest risk to the project, Fountain said, was just getting to the launch pad. The rocket lifted off Jan. 17, 2006.

Mountains on Pluto

One of Fountain's personal goals is to encourage more youths to study science and engineering.

He's particularly interested in students who start at a community college – "a very viable path to get a good education," he said – and continue at a four-year institution. What are the strengths and weaknesses for students on that path? he wants to know.

For now, the focus is on the mission to Pluto.

"You're going to see some very interesting pictures," Fountain said Wednesday of photos showing mountains on Pluto.

"They are, from a science point of view, just wonderful," he said.