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Meet 3545 Gaffey’s namesake

Having an asteroid named for him is just one of Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Space Studies Emeritus Mike Gaffey’s honors

In this photo from 2011, Mike Gaffey, professor of Space Studies and a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor at UND, holds a fossil reflecting one of the other great interests of his life: paleontology. Among his other classes, Gaffey taught a Space Studies course on dinosaurs because the Great Extinction of 66 million years ago likely was caused by an asteroid hitting Earth. Photo courtesy of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

By Mackinney Supola

Mike Gaffey, professor of Space Studies and a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, recently was awarded the title of Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Space Studies Emeritus.  As Gaffey takes this new status into his retirement, he will continue to advise the University and stay involved in research projects.

Pablo de León, professor and chair of the Department of Space Studies at UND, said that throughout Gaffey’s career, Gaffey was “a natural advisor to the students and faculty,” and that with this Emeritus status, “we are lucky to still have access to his expertise.”

Gaffey earned his Bachelor of Arts in Geology and Astronomy from the University of Iowa in 1968 and then his Master of Science in Geology in 1970. He then went on to get his Doctor of Philosophy in Earth and Planetary Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1974.

Gaffey has worked at UND since 2001. During his time here, he taught a variety of Space Studies courses ranging from “Introduction to Space Studies” to “The Planet Mars.” Gaffey was known for “always answering the call when he was needed,” said Dr. de León.

Michael Gaffey

3545 Gaffey

Along with teaching a wide range of classes throughout his time at UND, Gaffey conducted extensive research that was internationally recognized. He is a world authority on asteroids and is recognized by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Other focal points of Gaffey’s interests and research included small-body mineralogy; planetary geology; paleontology, especially regarding dinosaurs — one student described Gaffey’s office as “a treasure trove of fossils and other fascinating things” — and Near Earth-object impact hazard and mitigation, among many other areas.

Gaffey wrote multiple peer-reviewed papers on asteroid characterization and methodology and even has an asteroid named after him: “3545 Gaffey.”

From student to colleague to friend

Gaffey’s former student and now former colleague, Sherry Fieber-Beyer, also is one of Gaffey’s close friends. She shared that Gaffey was “able to bring a niche research area to UND, and brought attention to the university.”

“He was good to students,” she continued, “and he has a wealth of knowledge on everything.” Fieber-Beyer first met Gaffey in 2004, when she was a student and took one of his courses. She now holds the title of assistant professor in the Department of Space Studies and also is the director of UND Observatory.

Fieber-Beyer was the one to inform Gaffey of his Emeritus status and said that he has received multiple awards in the past, including the Gilbert Award and Leonard Medal, both of those in 2006. Shortly after those award, Gaffey was named a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor.

In this photo from 2011, Mike Gaffey, professor of Space Studies and planetary geologist at UND, explores the world of fossils and dinosaurs with a student. Photo courtesy of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

An accomplished career

The Gilbert Award is made for outstanding contributions to the solution of a fundamental problem of planetary geology. The Leonard Medal honors outstanding contributions to the science of meteoritics and closely allied fields. Fieber-Beyer equated these accomplishments in the field to “receiving an Emmy and a Golden Globe award in the same year.”

UND is lucky to have had a professor and individual such as Mike Gaffey, and that good fortune will continue now that Gaffey’s new Emeritus status will allow this relationship to continue into his retirement, Gaffey’s friends and fellow scholars agreed.


Mackinney Supola

About the author:

A certified flight instructor, Mackinney Supola is working toward bachelor’s degrees in Commercial Aviation and Communications at UND. She’s currently a marketing intern in the Dean’s Office at the University’s Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.