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Female astronaut challenges students to explore Mars

NASA astronaut and space shuttle pilot Pamela Melroy issued an unambiguous challenge to 15 Lehigh engineering students on April 14 when she came to the university to discuss the future of space flight.

“Twenty or 30 years from now, we want to send a large Rover spacecraft to Mars with one of you on board,” said Melroy, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force who flew combat missions in the Gulf War of 1991. “Twenty or 30 years from now, I hope I can come back here and listen to your presentation.

“Traveling to Mars will be an extremely complex engineering problem. It will be the challenge of your generation.”

Melroy’s 45-minute presentation capped off a two-day Lehigh-NASA Symposium devoted to the analysis of debris from the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated over the southern U.S. on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Fifteen seniors enrolled in the materials science and engineering department’s failure-analysis class spent the spring semester studying pieces of the debris.

The students, who used light and electron microscopy in their investigations, gave individual 15-minute PowerPoint presentations on the results of their research to NASA scientists on April 12 and April 14.

“Speaking on behalf of those seven astronauts, several of whom were my friends, I can tell you that they would have been hugely impressed with what you’ve accomplished and thrilled to see how you have contributed to the space program,” Melroy told the students.

NASA scientists say the Columbia’s failure was caused when a large piece of insulating foam broke away from the fuel tank during launch and struck the shuttle’s wing panel. The impact damaged the panel’s thermal protection system, exposing the panel to deadly heat when the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere.

More than 84,000 pieces of debris have been recovered. In January, NASA sent 50 pieces of debris to students in the failure-analysis course, which is taught by Arnold R. Marder, the R.D. Stout Distinguished Professor of materials science and engineering at Lehigh. The pieces, which had not yet been examined by NASA, came from parts of the shuttle not directly responsible for the Columbia’s failure.

Helping NASA travel to Mars and beyond

Lehigh, one of the few universities to offer a course in materials failure analysis, was the first university asked by NASA to analyze debris from the Columbia.

The students, who examined ceramic tiles, pieces of windshield, and portions of the shuttle’s aluminum frame, concluded that new materials and fabrication techniques, not available when the Columbia was built a quarter-century ago, could make future space vehicles stronger.

Several students reported that pieces of structural aluminum were laced with inclusions, or foreign substances possibly introduced during manufacturing. The inclusions, which had a lower melting point than the surrounding aluminum alloy, might have caused the alloy to fail more quickly than it would have otherwise.

The students’ results have given the space agency new and useful information, said Steve McDanels, chief of failure analysis and materials evaluation for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, who attended the students’ presentations.

“The students have given us information we didn’t have on the windshield and other shuttle parts that are of interest to us,” said McDanels.

“The data they gathered and the lessons they learned will be applied to future generations of vehicles, including shuttles and vehicles that will go to the moon and Mars and beyond.”

Marder said the students’ findings could also help NASA develop better ways of preventing future material failures under extreme or catastrophic conditions.

Students in Marder’s failure-analysis class were materials science and engineering majors David Brundage, Christopher Butler, Mikolaj Bykowski, Marina Chumakov, Kandice Cohen, Patrick Demchko, David Fischer, Gabriel Ganot, Alex Hudgins, Matthew Kampner, Richard Kinmonth, Yping Lam, Nathan Martian and Lindsey Velcheck, and Angela Capece, a mechanical engineering major.

The teaching assistant for the class was Ryan Deacon, a Ph.D. candidate in materials science and engineering. The class was also assisted by Arlan Benscoter, a metallographer and research scientist in the materials science and engineering department.

Materials science and engineering majors in the Class of 2006 will continue Lehigh’s investigation of the Columbia debris next spring in Marder’s failure-analysis course.

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Thursday, April 21, 2005

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