The Space Shuttle and RPI: Beginning to End

by Gabrielle DeMarco on July 8, 2011

Today, the final mission of the NASA Space Shuttle launched from its hot, hazy home at the Kennedy Space Center. Millions of people around the world watched in wonder as the iconic bullet-shaped Atlantis bursts through our atmosphere in a shower of rocket-fueled smoke, fire, and power. Rensselaer was there today, as it was from the very beginning.

Back in 1958, an intelligent young World War II veteran and RPI graduate helped form what we now know as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or simply NASA. George Low, Class of 1948, would become the NASA Chief of Manned Space Flight. At this time, the concept of a man in space seemed at best an extremely distant possibility and at worst a death mission. But, space science was quickly advancing. The spidery Russian Sputnik 1 was already orbiting around the globe along with the similar Sputnik 2 with the first (briefly) living passenger sent into orbit, Laika the stray dog.

Under Low’s direction, the idea of sending an American into space went from being nearly impossible to accomplished in just three years when astronaut Alan Shepard was rocketed up in Freedom 7 as part of Project Mercury. Low would go on to be an integral part of the planning for not only Project Mercury, but also Gemini and Apollo.

Later, just weeks after Neil Armstrong stepped off Apollo 11 in 1969 with Low watching from Mission Control, Low was named as one of three NASA Deputy Administrators. In that role, he helped take the program from that first step and toward the “giant leap for mankind” with the early development of the Space Shuttle.

And Rensselaer’s involvement in the shuttle by no means ends with Low. Class of 1987 graduate Richard A. Mastracchio truly put his electrical engineering degree to work as an astronaut aboard both Space Shuttle Atlantis and Endeavor.

Outside of NASA, many RPI graduates and faculty have been involved in the many missions of the retiring space shuttle. Some of these achievements may have been lifesaving.

In 2003, our terahertz expert Xi-Cheng Zhang used his terahertz technology to uncover small defects in the foam that encased the Space Shuttle. The technology, which uses these unique rays to create an image without destroying the materials it is analyzing, uncovered potentially dangerous air bubbles and separations in the material. The information helped NASA continue to improve the material design. Such knowledge is essential as NASA investigators believe that the Columbia Space Shuttle crash may have been caused by defects in the foam insulation.

In 2009, professors Peter Wayner and Joel Plawsky watched as their experimental heat transfer system was rocketed to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. The project, called the Constrained Vapor Bubble (CVB), is yielding important insights into the nature of heat and mass transfer operations that could lead to the development of new cooling systems for spacecraft and electronics devices.

RPI nanotechnology innovations have also been rocketed aboard the shuttle. In 2009, professors Linda Schadler and Thierry Blanchet developed two different types of experimental nanomaterials that were blasted into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis and later mounted to the exterior of the ISS hull. On the hull, they are exposed to the cold temperatures and strong radiation of space. Both materials are forging new ground in the effort to develop better and stronger materials for space and air craft design.

And today, RPI is once again a part of history as experiments from our own Cynthia Collins, Joel Plawsky, and Jonathon Dordick make their journey into the universe aboard the final mission of the shuttle. The experiments seek to understand how the environment of space impacts the growth of potentially deadly bacteria. A lot more information here.

In the end, experiments such as these could be vital to the next wave of innovations coming out of NASA post-Shuttle. If long-term space flight or extended stays aboard the ISS become the next possibility for discovery, a deep understanding of how to keep people safe and healthy in space will be essential.

I know many examples of RPI involvement in the shuttle are not mentioned here. Surely, hundreds of our faculty, students, and alumni have touched, molded, welded, and crafted so many aspects of this historic vessel. As the shuttle makes its last journey, we at RPI can all feel proud of our role in that journey and can look forward to our guaranteed involved in the next journey that NASA will have in store for us.