Western's own rocket man turns sci-fi dreams into reality

Contact: Erin Flynn
Greg Neff sits with his arms crossed in front of a sign that reads, "Rocket Lab, opening access to space."

“The day-to-day is very fun and engaging. But when you take a step back, you remember what you’re working on is going up into space, and it’s very humbling," says Greg Neff, BSE ‘14, MSE ‘16, a senior spacecraft mechanical engineer at Rocket Lab. (Photo courtesy: Rocket Lab)

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—"I used to watch space and sci-fi movies and think, 'That’s so cool.' But as a kid, you don’t realize there's a way to actually help make it happen."

Young Greg Neff’s mind would be blown right now. 

The two-time Western alumnus is a senior spacecraft mechanical engineer at Rocket Lab, a global leader in launch and space systems. 

“It’s the ultimate playground,” says Neff, BSE ‘14, MSE ‘16. “It’s a job that doesn’t feel like one because I get to really embody my interests every day, coming up with unique solutions to very difficult problems.”

Greg Neff, wearing a lab coat and protective hair net, works on a large solar wing for a satellite.

Neff is designing a solar array as a senior spacecraft mechanical engineer at Rocket Lab. (Photo courtesy: Rocket Lab)

His team operates in the space systems group of the company, designing satellite buses and components for spacecraft. Neff’s latest project involves developing a solar array wing for a car-sized communications satellite headed into orbit.

While his career prospects are literally out of this world, Neff also realizes the gravity of his contributions to the field.

“The day-to-day is very fun and engaging. But when you take a step back, you remember what you’re working on is going up into space, and it’s very humbling.”

The missions Neff’s work supports usually serve the world in some fashion, whether it’s pharmaceuticals to help millions of people, communications to improve quality of life or an Earth observation satellite that is looking at weather patterns to predict weather events and save lives.

Building a Legacy

Neff has always been interested in science and engineering. As a kid, he was fascinated by the work his grandfather, paper scientist and mechanical engineer Dr. Claus Globig, did to help build the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences Paper Pilot Plant in addition to inventing multiple types of paper. When he got older, his curiosity for constructing led him to the high school FIRST robotics team and eventually to Western’s mechanical engineering program.

“One of the reasons I wanted to go to Western over a ‘big name’ school is the engineering program, which is less theoretical and more hands-on,” says Neff, who grew up in Boston but traveled to Kalamazoo often to visit his grandparents. 

“Being able to start a club, machine your own parts and contribute to student-led organizations like the Baja Racing Team (which designs and builds competitive off-road vehicles) allows you to actually use the skills you’re learning in class and introduces you to the real world early on.”

Still, back then, he wasn’t quite sure where his engineering endeavors would take him in terms of a career. Then he met Dr. Kristina Lemmer, aerospace engineering professor, in her thermodynamics class.

“My interest in working in the space industry was pretty much nonexistent until I started working with (her),” says Neff. “Working with Dr. Lemmer and interning at NASA’s Glenn Research Facility and the Air Force Research Laboratory opened me up to this industry and made me think, ‘Wow, I can actually play a part in making this sci-fi future a reality.’”

Lemmer established the Aerospace Laboratory for Plasma Experiments in 2012. Neff, an eager volunteer, found his niche there and helped bring the lab from a pile of equipment to an operational laboratory.

“The Baja team is where I first became introduced to machining: turning parts, using the mill, welding and getting my hands dirty actually building things. That set me up very well for when I started working with Dr. Lemmer and building out her lab as an undergraduate. I was 

first tasked to design and build the frame for her vacuum chamber, and all the resources I needed were available through the college.” 

With Lemmer’s guidance, Neff also co-founded the Western Aerospace Launch Initiative student organization alongside classmate Andrew Hine, MSE ‘16, laying the groundwork for the program that could soon see Broncos launch a small satellite into orbit. His experiences both in and out of the classroom and lab ignited a future full of possibility.

“Coming out of academia and interviewing for jobs was much less daunting knowing that I already had some industry experience building technology demonstration units of flight hardware and having true hands-on experience. I had something to offer right off the bat, and it led to great career opportunities,” he says. “Having hands-on experience leaving college is an instant resume booster, and companies look for it.”

Space Dreams Come True

Greg Neff stands with his arms outstretched in front of rockets.

Neff worked at SpaceX before taking the job at Rocket Lab.

Right out of the gate after graduating with his master’s degree, Neff landed a job at Planetary Resources Inc., a space startup focused on prospecting and mining asteroids.

During his year with the startup, Neff was a sponge, learning from mentors who had worked on the Mars Curiosity Rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He built flight hardware and components, learned about telescopes and optics, and tested propulsion valves—important experience that earned him a coveted job offer from SpaceX. He leveraged it during his first three years with the company as a manufacturing engineer before deciding to make a change and joining the Starlink team at SpaceX as a space lasers engineer.

“I took that experience and became a responsible engineer designing flight hardware for Starlink, and now here I am (at Rocket Lab) designing a solar array for an entire spacecraft,” he says. “Every role I’ve had, I’ve learned and grown as an engineer, which positions me to work on the next best thing.”

Not even 10 years into his career, Neff has already seen the space industry grow by leaps and bounds. He feels privileged to have played a part in it.

“The hardware I worked on very early on at SpaceX … flew on the Demo-2 Crew Dragon and docked with the International Space Station,” he says. “To say that you helped put people into space and return the U.S. back to manned flight is definitely a high point thus far.”

And this is only the beginning.

“I really want to make our sci-fi movies a reality. I think our future is one where we have people going to space daily and living and exploring the solar system. This is an inspiring and hopeful future. So I’m doing anything I can to try to make that go faster,” Neff says. “I might not see a civilization on Mars or manned missions outside the solar system (in my lifetime), but I still know that every day, the work that we are doing is getting us there one brick at a time.” ■