Former NASA astronaut Charles Camarda was inducted Monday into the Long Island Air & Space Hall of Fame, where he spoke of the challenges of restarting the Space Shuttle program in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster.
The only living inductee in this year’s class of hall of famers, Camarda, formerly of Queens, was joined by representatives of three others; aviation inventor Sherman Fairchild, Navy test pilot James Blackstone Taylor, and Shell Youngwall, founder of the LI-based aerospace company Transaero.
Camarda, now 65 and living in Virginia Beach, Virginia, took part in NASA’s first Space Shuttle mission on Discovery in 2005 following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.
“As a researcher and as an engineer, we had to develop a lot of new technology and test it on that mission to make sure that we would fly safe.” Camarda said at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City.
At the end of its mission, Columbia disintegrated upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members. A piece of debris had damaged the leading edge of the shuttle’s left wing during launch, causing the wing to break apart on re-entry.
Before he was selected as an astronaut candidate, Camarda, now senior advisor for engineering development for NASA, had worked on an alternative design for those leading edge panels on the Space Shuttle. The panels used on Columbia were made of a brittle cutting edge material, with the panels only fractions of an inch thick.
“It’s the only thing that protects the wing from burning up, because it gets up to 2,600 °F” Camarda said. “If you have a hole in that wing-leading edge, the entire vehicle comes apart. And that’s what happened.”
Camarda said he believes his design would have been more durable. John Young, commander of the first Space Shuttle, had asked Camarda in 1997 to modify the wing panels to prevent the overheating issue, he recalled. Camarda submitted a design that included a heat pipe he had patented during his days as a researcher at the NASA Langley Research Center, but it was never produced.
“I believe it may have been able to take some of that heat, and might have bought you a little more time, but you can never say.” Camarda said.
He said that even after the Columbia disaster, mission control was not able to correct the issue and problems with wing-leading edge panels on the Space Shuttle persisted.
“It was arrogance from people that thought they understood a problem that they had no clue about, and were afraid to say ‘I don’t know,’” Camarda said. “I had to fight people in headquarters to see that there was an anomaly on my wing-leading edge. We’re lucky that we survived.”
Educating the next generation of astronauts and engineers, and giving them the “permission to fail”, will be crucial to breaking that mindset in the space program, Camarda said. He added that competitors to the NASA program, private ones like SpaceX, and internationally in India and China, are gaining ground in the space race.
“If we don’t do something… They’re going to eat our lunch,” Camarda said. “The one thing that we have that’s keeping us at the forefront, is the United States still has the creativity… we draw people in, and we’re creative.”