Charlie Camarda

NASA Space Shuttle Astronaut Comes Full Circle

By Sherry Bithell

Camarda demonstrates the principles of a helicopter to a student at NYU Polytechnic.

What do you do if you’re claustrophobic, afraid of heights, and can’t swim? If you’re Charlie Camarda, you spend hours in a tiny capsule and work hard to pass a water survival course so you can launch into space to orbit hundreds of miles above the Earth. “Sometimes I really wonder about myself,” says Camarda.

In July 2006, Camarda served as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Discovery, fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut. “I was lucky to know what I wanted to do from a young age,” Camarda recalls. “The Mercury Seven astronauts were my heroes.” He knew, however, that the odds against actually becoming an astronaut were astronomical. “You kind of put that in the back of your mind as you go on through engineering school. It’s a dream, and you don’t know if it will ever happen.”

Camarda, 57, instead set his sights on excelling in engineering research. After earning his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, the native of Queens, New York joined NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia in 1975. Three years later, the agency put out a call for civilian astronauts. Camarda applied but wasn’t surprised to be rejected due to his limited work experience. He continued working for NASA and went on to earn his master’s degree in engineering science from George Washington University and his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech.

“My engineering specialty is thermal structures, looking at thermal protection systems, high-temperature structural materials, actively cooled structures, and one of my specialties is leading edges of wings,” Camarda relates. “We’re talking about structures that have to operate in 3000 degrees F, so they’re pretty unique materials.”

Fast-forward to 1996. While attending a NASA-run management class, Camarda met employees from the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, Texas. When he mentioned his childhood dream, one of the Johnson employees responded that only two weeks remained until the deadline for the next astronaut class. Camarda immediately applied again—this time he was accepted. “It was like the stars were aligned,” he jokes. “I saw this as an opportunity not only to fulfill my dream but also to understand how to build and apply stuff you operate in space.”

Camarda moved to Houston to begin astronaut training and wait for his turn to go into space. However, when he was tapped for the Discovery launch nine years later, Camarda’s excitement was tempered with uncertainty: his flight would be the first after the Columbia shuttle tragedy in 2003. But his reticence wasn’t for the reasons you might expect.

“For the first year and a half after the accident, I worked on a solution for some of the key problems with the foam coming off and how we could inspect and repair that,” explains Camarda. “When I was first asked to go into space, I wondered, ‘Should I take myself out of a role I think I’m good at?’ There wasn’t a question of whether the flight would be a success. I was torn between flying the mission and working on the engineering problems.” In the end, he decided that flying on the shuttle would teach him more about practical applications for his research.

The Big Day Comes

As a shuttle astronaut, Camarda flew on the Discovery.

After several more months of training, the day of the long-awaited launch dawned. Camarda admits, “It was a lot less exciting than I had thought it would be. We trained so much that sitting there on the pad, reclined on your back for four hours waiting for the launch was actually relaxing.” The launch itself was another story. “Fellow crew member Wendy Lawrence was sitting next to me, and she said that from the minute the engines lit, all I was doing was laughing and shaking her the whole way up. I was just having a great time—like I was on a ride.”

The thrill of the journey continued once the shuttle went into orbit. “The thing that struck me most was the blackness of space,” Camarda recalls. “It looks like a three-dimensional blackness, as if it were this black fog. You can almost cut it with a knife. And the space station was just hanging there in space, looking so pristine and shining with the sun hitting it. It looked like this huge model.”

In a bit of a small-world revelation, when Camarda began training for the Discovery flight, he found that the lead trainer for new robotic technology was Jeff Sugar, a Virginia Tech graduate with a B.S. in aerospace engineering and an M.S. in industrial and systems engineering. The shuttle’s—and Camarda’s—mission depended heavily on Sugar’s know-how. On this test mission, one of the crew’s primary goals was to try new vehicle inspection techniques to ensure the safety of future flights. Those techniques relied on inspections conducted from inside the shuttle using a computer-controlled robotic arm operated by Camarda to make sure none of the debris that hit the vehicle during liftoff and the flight into orbit caused any critical damage.

“Jeff was teaching us something completely new. We were going to fly this boom extension to our 50-foot robotic arm,” Camarda explains. “It’s very close to a fragile structure, the leading edge of the shuttle wing, so if you bump it, you could potentially seriously damage the vehicle. Not a lot of pressure on a rookie, right?”

That training paid off once the crew was in space, when Camarda and pilot Jim Kelly improvised an inspection of the entire vehicle before docking at the International Space Station. “Jeff had enough confidence in us on the ground that he let us run these new procedures we were just doing on the fly. He did a fantastic job teaching us.”

“One of the other things I did was demonstrate one of the repair techniques while inside the vehicle. I was also part of the rendezvous and docking crew and part of the team that had to unload and reload the MPLM, mini-pressurized logistics module. That’s basically the module in the payload bay for taking up supplies for all the crewmembers, all the experiments and supplies, things like that.”

Along for the ride into space was a Virginia Tech flag. “I wanted to take a piece of every one of the institutions of learning I had attended—my grammar school, high school, and universities—because that’s the sum total of what enabled me to do what I did.”

In November 2006, Camarda brought the flag to Blacksburg, Virginia to present it to the university. While on campus, Camarda also spoke to two engineering classes, stressing the importance of the profession. “When engineering is not done right, the Columbia disaster is what happens,” he comments. “It’s such a tough job. We have to learn our craft and have confidence in what we do and make the right decisions. Also, if something doesn’t look right, it’s important for people to raise their hands and say, ‘Hey, we need to stop and take another look at this.’ ”

Most importantly, Camarda believes, it’s vital for students to do what they love. “You have to have that passion because if you do, you’ll be successful. I get up and go to work at ungodly hours because I just love what I do. You can tell from the professors and students around here that when you love what you do, it’s not work, it’s play.”

Case in point: Throughout Camarda’s career at NASA, he has received more than 21 NASA awards for technical innovations and accomplishments. He also holds seven patents.

Just an Engineer

Camarda (center) during weightlessness
training with fellow mission specialists
Stephen Robinson (left) and Soichi Noguchi.

Camarda’s comments at Virginia Tech would foreshadow the next stage of his illustrious career. Once his childhood dream had been realized, he recalls, “It was time to return to being just an engineer.” He serves as senior advisor for innovation to the chief engineer at NASA, stationed at Johnson Space Flight Center, but he works in New York at NYU Polytechnic under a governmental agreement with the university. This has him teaching and helping them develop a center for innovation, a so-called I2E program incorporating invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship. “I’m trying to help them develop a curriculum for infusing innovation in the engineering curriculum.”

He taught a class on innovative conceptual engineering design, with undergrads and also high school students. Camarda explains, “We’re trying to bring back the art with the science of engineering and motivate and capture young students in middle school to high school that have thought about engineering and showing them the fun part of engineering and what’s interesting about being an engineer. Giving them a chance to express their creative side. It’s fun to watch students have fun.”

Much of this stems from Camarda’s work as an engineer with NASA for 22 years before he became an astronaut. In that time, he developed a network of scientists and engineers in NASA he could pull together to solve some of the problems NASA struggles with. On one project, they developed several ideas for repairing a wing leading edge, which the astronauts could do in space if needed. “I learned we could solve some of these real problems in universities and possibly even in high schools by tapping into a tremendous resource of imagination and minds out there in young faculty and students to come up with ideas,” Camarda says.

It seems ideal that Camarda now finds himself working in his hometown where he went to undergraduate school. The thought of moving back permanently has entered his mind, but he muses, “The rest of my family is in Houston, Texas. If you can help me sell that idea, I’d appreciate it.”

Camarda is scheduled to return to Houston later this year for his next assignment. “Right now, NASA faces lots of challenges with the new administrator and the direction of NASA and the direction Obama wants NASA to go. I’d love to help if there’s a role for me in that new administration,” he says. If the past is any indication, there will be, and he will.

Sherry Bithell is former editor of Virginia Tech Magazine and other publications at Virginia Tech.

This article first ran in Virginia Tech Magazine and is reprinted with permission.

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