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Professors Deliver Talks at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

Avitabile, Niezrecki Given VIP Tour of Space Shuttle

The space shuttle Endeavour was poised for liftoff in February at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

By Edwin l. Aguirre

In February, Mechanical Engineering Profs. Peter Avitabile and Christopher Niezrecki were invited to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to give several technical presentations to the Center’s engineering staff about their research at UMass Lowell.

“Our lab is well recognized both nationally and internationally ߞ; and I am proud of that,” says Avitabile, who co-directs the University’s Structural Dynamics and Acoustics Systems Laboratory with Niezrecki.

While there, they discussed the new analytical and empirical approaches they are developing that can help monitor structural health and predict loads and global stress/strain, as well as gain a better physical understanding of the full-field dynamics of vibrating and rotating structures.

NASA engineers are interested in their investigations since the agency’s space shuttle, along with its solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank, is subjected to tremendous aerodynamic pressures and vibrations during launch and passage through the atmosphere.

After the talks, the staff asked Avitabile and Niezrecki if they wanted to look around the launch complex.

“Of course we did,” says Avitabile. He and Niezrecki were treated to a private behind-the-scenes tour of the space shuttle Endeavour, sitting on Launch Complex 39A just 36 hours before liftoff.

“We passed through the launch pad’s first security checkpoint, then through the second checkpoint where they took our name badges and secured them in a metal box at the gate ― in case something goes wrong, they would know where to send the remains,” says Avitabile.

The group then went to the last checkpoint right at the base of the shuttle and received clearance to proceed.

“We walked all around the launch pad and support structure ߞ; we must have been there for at least an hour,” he says. “We also went up the elevator to the shuttle’s gangplank. We actually got as far as poking our heads into the astronauts’ entry hatch to the shuttle.”

It was an incredible experience for the two professors.

“I still don’t believe we got that close,” says Avitabile. “Even the engineers who escorted us hardly ever get this close, especially during launch preparations.”

One of Avitabile’s current graduate students is James Ristow, a structural dynamics engineer from the Kennedy Space Center who is completing his master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering on a NASA scholarship.

“UMass Lowell was very highly recommended by my colleagues at KSC,” says Ristow. “They knew of Prof. Avitabile’s reputation in the industry. I’m impressed with the vast knowledge and experience of the University’s faculty.”  

“James is here because the structural dynamics engineers at KSC insisted that he do his grad work here at UMass Lowell due to the wide recognition of the programs we have developed at the Structural Dynamics and Acoustics Systems Lab,” says Avitabile.

Profs. Christopher Niezrecki and Peter Avitabile tour the space shuttle’s launch pad.
Avitabile with the shuttle’s white solid rocket booster and orange external fuel tank in the background.