Q & A with Astronaut Charlie Camarda

Dr. Camarda talks about going to space, his vision for the future of space science, and more.

Q & A with Astronaut Charlie Camarda

Astronaut Charlie Camarda, a Queens native, was a Mission Specialist on NASA's 2005 STS-114 Discovery flight, the Return to Flight Mission following the Columbia tragedy. He is now Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Office of Chief Engineer, Johnson Space Center. Dr. Camarda recently visited the Academy to address over 100 K-12 students at the Family Stem Bonanza, and discussed his experiences during an interview. (Pictured, from left to right: STS-114 crew members Charlie Camarda, Stephen Robinson, Wendy Lawrence, and Soichi Noguchi) 

What's it like to go to space?

It's such an exciting ride! To tell you the truth, when we took off, it was so hyped up that I had actually expected there to be a lot more vibration and sound than there was. Whether it was the weather or I just had a really good flight, it was actually very smooth. You're prepared for it. We were the Return to Flight Mission after the Columbia accident, so we had lots of work to do. We had lots of supplies to bring, lots of new technology to put in place and evaluate to make sure the rest of the crews would be safe. We were very busy, and that's how typical flights are. Most of your time is tightly budgeted and controlled by the ground.

What did it mean to be the first crew to fly following the Columbia tragedy?

It was harder on our families. I grew up as a research engineer at NASA Langley Research Center, and my particular area of expertise was very close to what caused the accident. I worked on high temperature structures, heat transfer, and leading edges, so I was very aware of the dangers of things striking the thermal protection system and how fragile the thermal protection system was. As far as being worried as to whether or not we were ready to fly, though, I was very confident we were. I felt very safe. The emotional significance of flying after 3 of my classmates and 7 very close friends had passed away...that was a little tough. It takes a while to come to grips with that.

[The Columbia disaster was caused by complications due to a hole in the Shuttle's left wing. The damage was sustained during take off, when a large piece of insulating foam hit the vehicle, breaking the heat-resistant carbon paneling on the wing's leading edge. During re-entry, the tear allowed super hot (3,000 degrees F) gasses to penetrate the wing's structure. Click here for more info.]

I had been very involved with the science of the return to flight, even before I was assigned to that mission. I worked with a lot of teams to analyze whether the foam would be a problem for our flight. I also did a lot of work verifying whether the technology that was being developed to repair damages to the vehicle, should they occur, would be ready. We wanted to know that, if we did have a debris strike, we could rely on the solutions we'd developed to fix problems up there in case we needed those fixes to come back.

For Discovery, we removed what was called the bipod ramps, two of them, which were large pieces of foam on the external fuel tank, one of which came off and caused the Columbia tragedy. There's also a very large piece of foam called the protuberance air load ramp. It's a thick foam covering that goes over some of the feed lines that run the length of the external tank. We would have wanted them to take that off for our flight. They didn't, and a large piece came off during our flight. So you can imagine our spouses on the ground! All they knew was that a large piece of foam came off during launch. We couldn't inspect it until the next morning. NASA was grounding the rest of the fleet, so there wouldn't be a mission to come rescue us if we needed it. When we did the inspection, everything was OK. When you watch the video, though, that piece of foam goes right under the wing leading edge and it could have been catastrophic.

What were the aims of your mission?

We had several priorities. We were testing the new technology we'd developed to make sure that each successive mission (and our mission!) would be safe. We were testing how to inspect the vehicle, send the data down to Earth, how to make sure what we thought we were seeing was correct, collaborating and coordinating to make sure the data aligned with our predictions. We wanted to be sure, if we did get hit, astronauts could go outside and repair the vehicle. We did the first repair in orbit, I believe.

What kinds of anomalies came up, and how did you deal with them in space?

One of the new procedures we did was what's called an R-bar pitch maneuver. When we're on the radius vector directly underneath the Space Station, about 600 feet below the ISS, the entire shuttle does a back flip. It would be amazing to put to music! It looks like the Space Station is rising over your tail. As we did the back flip, ISS Expedition 11 commander Sergei Krikalev and flight engineer John Phillips photographed the shuttle's belly from Space Station to see if there was any damage. On the outside of the shuttle, you have black tiles, about 30,000 of them with a black coating. If you get hit, it's real easy to see because beneath the tiles there are white silica materials and they stand out.

As we were doing the back flip, Krikalev and Phillips saw a small piece of what's called the gap filler. It's Nomex material, about the size of a very thin felt pad, about 6 pieces of paper. They're in between each one of the 3-inch tiles. Two of them came out and were sticking out about an inch. These were just very small pieces of white material we happened to catch, but we had to inspect and understand it, what it would mean. When we sent the image of the material down to the ground, the experts in aerothermodynamics said we had to go out and pull it out of there. If we didn't, even though it was very small, it would trip the boundary layer, the layer of air that hugs the surface, and shed these vortices in a wedge type angle. Those vortices would hit the wing leading edge and burn us up. Can you imagine? You just had this very small piece of material sticking out and it could have spelled disaster.

We also hit a large buzzard during launch! They were circling above us. It's a bad day when there are buzzards circling overhead, right?! We hit one or two of them at 100 mph before we even cleared the tower. It was a lucky day though! With the size of that bird, if it had tumbled over the opposite side of the vehicle it could have gone through the windshield. So the next flight after that, they did all they could to make sure there weren't any birds around. Typically you have helicopters patrolling the area. No one's allowed in the airspace, especially small planes. They just weren't thinking about birds!

So we did have a couple of anomalies! But that happens on many of the missions. We had to coordinate with a team of engineers on the ground. Those folks coordinate and choreograph all the cameras and where the astronauts move when they go outside to do an EVA (extravehicular activity), where they put their hands, how they translate. You're a dancer, right? [I am!] So you'll apprecaite this. When an astronaut goes out to do an EVA, it's just like a dance. They know before they get out there exactly where they put their hands and the order of all their movements, to make it as easy and safe as possible. It's really difficult to move in that suit! 

How do you train to manage these life or death situations?

That's very interesting! For a long time, before we had Space Shuttle, they only used test pilots. Not just any pilots! It had to be test pilots who went through test pilot school and were very excellent. I have amazing appreciation for the pilots that we have and their ability to multitask. It blows my mind sitting in the back seat flying with these top guns, what they're able to do.  Steel nerves under pressure!

Then they started bringing scientists and engineers like me in. We're called mission specialists. They teach us how to acquire some of those skills. So we fly in the back of a T38 and we learn what's called crew resource management. It's what pilots, navigators, and crew do on aircraft, so when they see emergencies, they know exactly what their jobs are. There's an economy of words, a scripted procedure that each person has to follow. You know exactly what you have to do. We train like that as a team, doing navigation, flying the vehicle, talking to the ground, trying to make sense of what's going on around you in all kinds of conditions. It gets you ready.

What do you think should be the future of space science?

Well, I think we've started to lose our edge, to be honest, but all the commercial and private endeavors are great. The competition sparks innovation, and that's what we need. NASA should be supporting these projects and also doing great basic research. Should we go to Mars? Definitely! Start working on asteroids? Yes! The more people we have up there and the more ideas and challenges we think about, the more inspired people will be to come up with even more ideas and solutions, students and NASA scientists alike. As I said, it used to be that only test pilots could go up, but now it's getting more popular. It's still really expensive, but I hope soon it will be a more accessible experience. With a more diverse group of minds inspired to think and dream about space, we'll start to see really great stuff happen.



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