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Faculty Matters Article - University of Phoenix

My Personal Solar Telescope


Eyes on the sky

your passion

William Rankin, Ph.D.

By Mark Dillon
Photographs by Jeffrey Salter


William Rankin involves his students in his passions for astrophotography and space exploration to help them think beyond our everyday reality. A former director of five major airports, he has taught at University of Phoenix since 1996 for the School of Business and College of Humanities and Sciences. And it’s handy for him to live in Florida, where he and wife Sandra can watch rocket launches from the nearby Kennedy Space Center.



It’s no wonder William Rankin, Ph.D., pursued a career in aviation and a lifelong passion for the stars and space travel. The former airport director and current NASA ambassador grew up in “The Rocket City”—Huntsville, Alabama, where he moved as a junior high school student in the 1960s. It is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), which was then working on launching a rocket to the moon. “I remember the houses would shake when the Saturn rocket boosters were tested on the Tennessee River,” Rankin recalls. “Huntsville was a boomtown and you could feel electricity in the air. There was that feeling of pushing the edge of the envelope and doing new things.”The MSFC was headed up by German missile experts brought over to the U.S. after World War II. Their director was Dr. Wernher von Braun, who had developed Germany’s V-2 weapon and is known as the “Father of Rocket Science.” To involve Huntsville students in their research, the scientists founded the Rocket City Astronomical Association (RCAA)—today known as the Von Braun Astronomical Society—which a teenaged Rankin eagerly joined.


Hooked on flying



“Through that organization I got to know von Braun, [his colleagues] Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, Gerhard Heller and Wilhelm Angele and NASA astrobiologist Richard Hoover, who took me for my first airplane ride when I was 16. I got hooked on flying,” Rankin recollects. “I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work for these individuals and participate in meetings with them. It’s something that really sticks with you.” Rankin went on to get his commercial pilot’s license, although his career has been on terra firma. He held directorial and managerial roles at Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem, Eastern Iowa Airport, Reagan National Airport, El Paso International Airport and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. “It’s like running a small city,” he notes. “The airport might be as big as the local government. You have a lot of responsibility—primarily for the safety of the public and making sure the facilities are secure and that the airlines are accommodated as much as possible. You deal with just about everybody.”


Lassoing the Horsehead


As a youngster, Rankin helped develop a camera-holder to fit on the RCAA’s 22-inch telescope. “We took photographs with 35mm cameras as best we could,” he explains. “Today the technology is much better with CCD cameras that use electronic chips. You can photograph deep-sky galaxies and nebulae that amateurs couldn’t have photographed in the past.” He takes photos using a NexStar 11 GPS telescope at an observatory he built in North Carolina, where he owns a house. “I can punch M-51—also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy—in the keypad and the telescope will automatically slew to that galaxy and center it in the field of view,” he explains.


Some astrophotographers are driven by curiosity about space, and others by the beautiful images. For Rankin, it’s both. He shares photos on his website, and says his Holy Grail would be photographing the red Horsehead Nebula, located 1,500 light years from Earth. “It’s an extremely difficult image to capture. If I could get a good picture of it that really would be something,” he says.


 Life on Mars?



Rankin, who currently teaches online for UOPX, calls Viera, Florida, home. It’s a short drive to the Kennedy Space Center, which he visits at every opportunity. This proximity allows him to keep up with the latest in rocketry—just like when he was a boy in Huntsville. “I recently watched an Atlas V5 rocket take off into orbit carrying a NASA communications satellite,” he says. “You can hear the roar of a rocket when it goes off and watch it go through the sky. It’s a fascinating place to live.” He believes we are not alone, and the conditions of many thousands of stars and planets are conducive to living organisms. “There is life elsewhere in this universe,” he says. “I believe we will find the first evidence of some sort of life on Mars.”


The Big Picture



Rankin is a member of NASA’s Solar System Ambassadors Program, which reaches out to students and educators. He hears from NASA scientists about their missions of robotic space exploration, holds star parties at his observatory and has taught university classes on rocketry and commercial spaceflight.

He brings his fascination with the cosmos to UOPX courses including Mind and Machine. “I want to share my love of astronomy, looking at the night sky and seeing those things you don’t normally see,” he says. “I try to integrate some of that into classroom discussions to get students to think differently—not only about the bounded reality of the world we live in, but about the big picture of the universe and what created us.”


William Rankin
Faculty since 1996


School of Business and College of Humanities and Sciences



Ph.D. in Business Administration, Aviation and Aerospace Management, Northcentral University


The faculty member is largely responsible for setting the initial mood or climate of the program. Help to elicit and clarify the purposes of the students in the class. Rely upon the desire of each student to implement those purposes that have meaning to him/her as the motivational force behind significant learning.


Endeavor to recognize and accept your own limitations as a facilitator of learning.

Source: UOP Faculty Matters Website, 2014






“I want to share my love of astronomy, looking at the night sky and seeing those things you don’t normally see.”

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