Engineer balances life on earth with work in the stars

By Katie Davis Skelley, DEVCOM Aviation & Missile Center Public AffairsSeptember 8, 2022

Heather Helton works for the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center.
Heather Helton works for the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center. (Photo Credit: Katie Davis Skelley, DEVCOM Aviation & Missile Center Public Affairs) VIEW ORIGINAL

REDSTONE ARSENAL (Sept. 8, 2022) - It is the best of both worlds for Heather Helton – farm living at home and a career that has taken her to the “STARS.”

Helton is the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center’s Government Lead to Sensors Test Analysis Requirements and Simulation Hardware in the Loop Lab for the Missile Defense Agency’s Sensors Directorate. At STARS, Helton and her team provide radar analysis and hardware-in-the-loop testing for all MDA radars.

“With STARS, we are given opportunities to support analysis for real world events and assess emerging threats,” Helton said. “Being able to see what is happening on the news, correlate that to our work and know that we had a piece in helping inform decisions that we are witnessing is very fulfilling. It makes you want to continue to improve and work harder and better for our mission.”

Engineering was not on Helton’s “radar” growing up in the rural town of Hazel Green, Alabama. She originally planned to be a pharmacist. But after accepting an internship at AvMC at the age of 17, she changed her school curriculum and has never looked back, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in software engineering from the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

While in the master’s program, she was introduced to the world of hacking through augmenting the Threat Systems Management Office, but not to fear, Helton is a “white hat” and is a Certified Ethical Hacker.

 “While at the Threat Systems Management Office, I became a red team operator which was very cool because hacking was my job,” Helton said. “The goal of the red team is basically to hack into any system and show those vulnerabilities to administrators to make it better – more secured and protected. The blue team would be the network administrators and cyber security professionals who are keeping our systems protected. On the red team side, I would say it is the fun side because we only worry about one way of getting in while they have to worry about all of the ways to keep us out.”

Although her role at AvMC does not include hacking, Helton said that her earlier experience dovetails into the work she does now.

“It has helped me on the radar side of things. Because we maintain our own authority to operate and cybersecurity for STARS. You appreciate the importance of it because you have the mission and cybersecurity – they both work together.”

When not at S3I, Helton and her husband have recreated the farm life that she knew growing up in Hazel Green for their sons and one can usually find her – when not at the ballpark with her two budding baseball players – on the family farm, raising her championship cattle as Helton Beefmasters.

“We do performance breeding, all of our cattle have pedigree like a thoroughbred horse,” she said. “We have a small herd where we try to better the breed for the commercial folks that do sell this breed,” Helton said. “We have metrics that we look at which can determine whether the calves would be better from that mother or that father. Other pedigree breeders will buy our cattle to better what they have and vice versa.”

DEVCOM AvMC's Heather Helton with her family.
DEVCOM AvMC's Heather Helton with her family. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

Helton’s obvious enthusiasm for her family, her job – and her cows -- is contagious and it is easy to see why she was recently tapped to represent AvMC at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama. For her, it is work that matters. For those young engineers also looking for work that makes a difference, Helton advises them to not pigeonhole oneself – stay open new experiences.

“Not saying ‘no’ opens up opportunities that you never thought were a possibility.”


The DEVCOM Aviation & Missile Center, headquartered at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, is the Army’s research and development focal point for advanced technology in aviation and missile systems. It is part of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM), a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command. AvMC is responsible for delivering collaborative and innovative aviation and missile capabilities for responsive and cost-effective research, development and life cycle engineering solutions, as required by the Army’s strategic priorities and support to its Cross-Functional Teams.