Florida Tech Involvement Key in NASA’s Orion Program

Alumni, Students and Faculty Continue to Play Important Roles

MELBOURNE, FLA. — More than a dozen Florida Institute of Technology students, faculty and alumni are working on Orion and the Space Launch System propulsion system as Florida Tech continues to play a vital role in the United States’ evolving space programs.

Rebecca Mazzone was one such alumna involved in the successful test launch of Orion, NASA’s Florida-built spacecraft, in December. Mazzone, who received her bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2004 and a master’s degree in space systems in 2009, was a manager on the Orion project and primarily focused on communication and networks that allowed the launch and mission teams to interact with the capsule.

“To see Orion lift off successfully and splash down hours later so perfectly on the other side of the country was the most incredible feeling in the world,” she said. “I still grin when I think about what our team accomplished.”

Mazzone joins a long line of members of the Florida Tech community who have contributed to the space progra

m over the last 57 years, starting with Jerome Keuper, a physicist who wanted to help enhance the qualifications of the scientists and engineers leading the space race.

After coming to Cape Canaveral in the earliest days of the space program, Keuper founded Brevard Engineering College, in 1958, the same year NASA was created. The college, later renamed Florida Institute of Technology, was the first higher education institution in the world to offer a master’s of science degree in space technology.

Mazzone’s story is particularly unique because she was courted by NASA after speaking at the October 2003 dedication of Florida Tech’s Columbia Village residential hall complex, which was named after the space shuttle that was destroyed during reentry in February of that year.

The culmination of everyone’s hard work was a successful Orion test flight in December.

Adjunct Professor Francis Cirillo, who received his master’s degree in engineering management from Florida Tech, is a senior software engineer working on the launch control system for Orion.

“My feelings were actually like a roller coaster; going up and down,” Cirillo said. “We were disappointed when the launch was delayed, and then scrubbed the first day, due to a stuck valve. The following day, the rocket was launched successfully, and it was a great feeling to see all of our hard work pay off with a successful launch.”

Next up for the Orion project is a post-flight review by NASA officials. Orion’s next flight is expected to take place in 2017 as part of EM-1, a flight that will take an unmanned Orion capsule to an orbit near the moon as a way to test the SLS and further assess the systems required for supporting a crew.

Florida Tech and Space: A Closer Look

The space connections run deep at the Melbourne, Fla.-based university:

  • Florida Tech has five astronauts as alumni: Joan Higginbotham, Kathryn Hire, Frederick Sturckow, Sunita Williams and George Zamka. Two former astronauts who flew on the space shuttle are on faculty: Sam Durrance in physics and space sciences and Winston Scott, senior vice president for external relations and economic development.
  • A Florida Tech alumnus, launch integration manager Michael Moses, made the final go/no-go decision on space shuttle Atlantis’s final flight in 2011, the end of the shuttle program.

As the shuttle program concluded, NASA began the Constellation program, where Orion was born. And with this new program, a new wave of up-and-coming space scientists, many of them from Florida Tech, began their careers.

Daniel Barnes, who received his Ph.D. in physics in 2012, helped design a lightning monitoring system to monitor the effects of lightning strikes on and around the shuttle, which is being modified to do the same for Orion.

Dimitrios Mitsakos, a 2001 graduate of Florida Tech’s bachelor’s in physics program, helped engineer Orion’s wire harnesses and instrumentation, and is currently the lead electrical engineer for the solid rocket boosters, which are part of the SLS.


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