Virginia Tech?s College of Engineering has a new claim to stardom this week, as a former Ph.D. student orbits the earth in the first space shuttle mission since the Columbia tragedy of 2003. Charlie Camarda, a mission specialist aboard the shuttle Discovery, received his doctorate from Tech?s Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering while working for NASA.
Raphael Haftka, who spent more than 13 years at the university as an aerospace engineering professor, remembers his time as Camarda?s academic adviser.
?I interacted with him just as professors typically interact with their students,? Haftka said. ?He would do research, and then come into my office. When he was ready to write a paper, I would help him with ideas and help him edit the paper.?
Camarda wrote his dissertation on improved techniques for predicting dynamic responses to structures. Haftka said the paper was not limited to space research and could include a smorgasbord of phenomenon, including how a building shakes from hurricane-level winds.
The engineer-turned-astronaut was not the typical student at Tech.
?Unlike most graduate students who continue their studies after their time as an undergraduate, he had the advantage of having 10 years of research experience at NASA,? Haftka said.
Camarda studied in Blacksburg for a year as a part of an exchange program with the space agency that let engineers take a temporary leave of absence to obtain terminal degrees at a technical university such as Tech. Before earning his Ph.D., Camarda worked for NASA while researching as a part-time student.
The former adviser, who served under an endowed professorship at Tech for six years, now spends his time among the faculty at the University of Florida as a distinguished professor. But these days the memory of advising a student who would become an astronaut is not rocket science.
?I mostly worry about him because there are some problems with the tiles on the shuttle,? Haftka said.
Haftka refers to dangerous strips of protruding filler from the shuttle?s belly that astronauts discovered last week.
The material, which officials determined might have caused a repeat of the Columbia tragedy, was removed successfully Wednesday when a crew member in spacewalking suit performed an emergency repair, extracting the strips with his gloved hand. The repair was the first one of its kind conducted on a shuttle while in orbit.
Discovery is the first shuttle to fly since Feb. 1, 2003, when Columbia crumbled into pieces upon re-entry, killing a crew of seven.
An independent inquest called the Columbia Accident Investigation Board determined a piece of insulating foam caused the accident. According to a statement from CAIB, the block of foam struck the leading edge of the shuttle?s left wing, allowing superheated air to seep through the structure and cause it to break up over central Texas.
Now, more than two years after the Columbia tragedy, NASA officials have dubbed this mission the ?Return to Flight.?
According to a statement from the space agency, the flight ?will debut and test new designs incorporated into the Shuttle?s external fuel tank and processes that eliminate the likelihood that future Space Shuttle flights could suffer damage similar to Columbia.?
In addition, NASA will introduce cameras to photograph the tank during launch and other parts of the shuttle during its trip to the International Space Station. A primary goal of this mission is to ensure the safety of Camarda and the rest of the crew and restore confidence in the space shuttle program.
Discovery launched July 26, leaving Camarda?s wife, three stepchildren and 18-year-old daughter back on earth during the 12-day mission.
The shuttle docked with the International Space Station to bring supplies to its crew of two and prepare the station for future construction. Camarda did much of the logistics of the transfer of supplies and operated the robotic arm, lasers and cameras during rendezvous, docking and inspections of the shuttle.
Droves of astronaut fans will be glued to their television sets on Monday as the shuttle makes its much-anticipated descent to Earth. Haftka, for one, said he will keep his fingers crossed.
Reports from the Associated Press contributed to this article.