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Award-winning ME student sets her sights future of space program

Like scientists worldwide, Angela Capece held her breath Jan. 14 when the unmanned space probe Huygens parachuted to the surface of Titan, second-largest moon in the solar system, and began sending back photographs.

Larger than Mercury, Pluto or our own moon, and obscured by heavy clouds, Titan orbits the planet of Saturn more than 800 million miles from the Earth. Its thick atmosphere of nitrogen and methane, says Angela, might shed light on the origin of the solar system and more.

"As surreal as the photos look, they are very exciting," says Angela, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. "By exploring Titan, scientists can catch a glimpse of what our primordial Earth looked like. Through this, we might be able to get a better understanding of how life began on Earth."

Angela has been fascinated by space exploration most of her life. She has seized every opportunity offered by Lehigh, and some off campus as well, to prepare for a career in that field.

In the fall of 2003 and summer of 2004, Angela worked for NASA's Kennedy Space Center through the engineering college's cooperative education program. There, she conducted studies related to the 2003 explosion of the Columbia space shuttle, which killed seven astronauts.

In her spare time in Florida, she got a scholarship from the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots, and studied towards her private pilot's license.

This semester, Angela is a member of a team of students who are designing and building a tiny airplane for the ninth national Micro Aerial Vehicle competition.

A resourceful spirit meets an unprecedented opportunity

Lehigh's co-op program allows qualifying engineering students to work eight months for a company or government agency while still graduating in four years. The career services office helps students identify and contact prospective employers, but Angela, who knew all along where she wanted to work, contacted NASA and got a job on her own.

At the Kennedy Space Center, Angela helped perform statistical studies aimed at preventing a recurrence of the Columbia disaster of Feb. 1, 2003.

Scientists and engineers have determined that the explosion of the Columbia was caused when pieces of foam insulation broke away from the shuttle's fuel tank during launch, striking and damaging the reinforced-carbon wing panel and exposing it to excessive heat when the Columbia re-entered the atmosphere.

The foam is sprayed in layers on the fuel tank, says Angela. Air is sometimes trapped between the layers, causing pieces of the hardened foam to "popcorn" and fall off when the shuttle is launched. Investigators believe that an unusually large piece of this foam broke off so quickly on launch that its impact put a hole in the wing panel, causing the fatal "burn-through" on re-entry.

As an intern at the Space Center, Angela helped perform statistical analyses on all 113 space shuttle flights, documenting the number and size of foam impacts on various parts of the shuttle. She found that the frequency of foam hits ranged from three to 200, with an average of 40 per mission.

"The Kennedy Space Center gave me a lot of responsibility," says Angela, who is co-writing a report for NASA. "They showed a lot of confidence in me. I did a presentation to NASA teams, and I got to travel to the LBJ Space Center in Houston."

Earning her wings at Lehigh

Back at Lehigh, Angela received the mechanical engineering department's H.R. and Y.B. Liu Wei Prize for academic achievement and leadership. The award, given to a top undergraduate mechanical engineering major, was endowed by Robert P. Wei, the Paul B. Reinhold Professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics, and Wei's wife, Lee Wei, in honor of the professor's parents.

Angela recently completed the yearlong IPD (Integrated Product Development) class required by the mechanical engineering department, in which teams of engineering and business students design and make products for industrial companies. Angela's team redesigned a diaphragm pump for Ingersoll Rand, replacing its air motor with an electric motor. The device pumps powders as well as viscous liquids and is used in industry, wastewater plants, chemical plants, and paper and pulp mills.

Outside class, Angela has completed most of the requirements for her private pilot's license, including the solo airplane flight, which she navigated from Allentown's Queen City Airport to Newburgh, N.Y. After she earns the license, she will begin working on her instrument ratings.

Flying, she says, is a new experience.

"It's a lot of fun, but so contradictory - very relaxing when you're alone, very beautiful, peaceful and serene, but always tense. It's very rewarding - you're in command of a machine, flying thousands of feet above the ground."

This semester, Angela is studying aeronautics at the micro-scale. She and five other mechanical engineering majors are designing and making a micro-aerial vehicle (MAV) that must measure less than six inches in diameter and fly at least 15 minutes. Angela is overseeing aerial and airframe design.

The Lehigh team is entering a national undergraduate MAV competition this spring. The team whose plane flies the farthest with the smallest plane wins the competition. The Lehigh team might also choose to enter the surveillance competition, in which an MAV, after being launched, must take a photograph of a target from mid-air and return to a point 100 yards or less from the launch pad.

After she graduates from Lehigh in May, Angela will take a job with Bettis Atomic Power Lab in Pittsburgh, which is making a nuclear space reactor for the Prometheus Spacecraft set to travel to Jupiter in 2014.

She will no doubt continue to draw inspiration from the Titan landing.

"It's hard to comprehend that we have sent a robotic tourist to snap pictures on one of Saturn's moons," she says. "This is a colossal undertaking, and we should be proud that we're technically capable of pulling it off."

Posted on Tuesday, February 01, 2005

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