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South Dakota State University (SDSU) has named Mike Headley as a 2024 Distinguished Engineer.
Mike Ray

South Dakota State University (SDSU) has named Mike Headley as a 2024 Distinguished Engineer. Headley is the executive director of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority (SDSTA) and the laboratory director at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF).  The prestigious recognition, by the university’s College of Engineering, has been awarded to only 148 people since its inception in 1977.

Headley grew up in Brookings, graduated from Brookings High School in 1987 and graduated from SDSU in 1992 with a computer science degree.

He was active in Air Force ROTC, becoming the national commander of the Arnold Air Society, an honorary service organization for Air Force ROTC officer candidates. He also achieved the rank of cadet brigadier general, making him the highest-ranking Air Force cadet in the nation.

Headley spent six years in the Air Force, including a stint at the National Reconnaissance Office, where at 28-years-old, he was directing a 200-member multi-agency government and industry team that was acquiring, launching, and operating a suite of intelligence satellite systems. He received a Defense Meritorious Service Medal for his service.

Upon leaving the military, Headley worked 10 years at the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center near Baltic, SD. Among his accomplishments was leading the planning, development and delivery of the next-generation Landsat satellite mission — the largest project within the U.S. Department of the Interior and a joint mission with NASA. He managed a budget of $280 million and led a 120-member civil servant and contractor project team.

In 2008, he was hired as deputy lab director of SURF.

In December 2010, the National Science Board decided not to fund further design of experiments there. In 2011, the same year Headley was named lab director, the U.S. Department of Energy agreed to support science operations. Today, federal funding is managed through a cooperative agreement with the DOE’s Office of Science, with additional funding through the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority.

Headley is credited with providing the leadership to establish SURF as the deepest underground laboratory in the U.S., hosting world-leading scientific work a mile underground.

Currently, the lab is partnered with the Department of Energy’s Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, to construct the largest science experiment ever attempted on U.S. soil — a $3 billion project that aims to unlock the mysteries of why there is a matter-dominated universe.

Headley, his wife, Elizabeth Freer, and daughter, Alexandra, live in Spearfish.

SDSU also added Vernon Schaefer to its list of Distinguished Engineers. Schafer, an internationally recognized geotechnical engineer, is a 1978 SDSU civil engineering graduate.  You can read the full press release, on the SDSU website, here.

Both Headley and Schaefer will be honored at the April 23 Engineering Scholarship Banquet at Club 71 in Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. Tickets are available at Engineering Scholarship Banquet Registration Form | South Dakota State University ( banquet-registration-form.