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Alumna Proves She can Take the Heat

As the world watched the Curiosity Rover land on Mars with pinpoint precision last August, Robin Senigaglia Beck ’77 breathed a well-deserved sigh of relief. As NASA’s Cognizant Engineer for the thermal protection systems (TPS) of the spacecraft, Beck was responsible for the heat shield that allowed the vehicle to enter Mars’ atmosphere with surface temperatures as high as 2000°C unscathed with all systems go.

BECK2With over 30 years of experience in the aerospace industry working on ablative reentry material response, Beck was well prepared for the task of overseeing the team developing, designing, testing, qualifying, and certifying the efficacy of the heat shield. “Due to the increased size and entry mass over previous missions, the conditions the heat shield would see were beyond anything ever flown to Mars,” she said. “When we tested the standard material that had previously flown to Mars, we got catastrophic failure; so with just two years before the originally scheduled 2009 launch we had to come up with a replacement material and a new design. We chose PICA (Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator) in a tiled configuration and worked closely with both the manufacturer of the tiles and with Lockheed, who built the aeroshell and attached the TPS. In the end, the machining was so exact that no adjustments were necessary—every row of tiles fit perfectly, not one piece needed any adjustment, and the gaps were all within tolerance. The heat shield was beautiful!” Not only that, but Beck’s team finished the heat shield in 18 months, in time for delivery for the scheduled 2009 launch.

Three years later, Beck was part of the delegation watching the entry at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “I was not nervous at all about the heat shield,” she said; “I knew there was more material than what was needed; our test data led me to have full confidence in the heat shield. But still, there were a lot of risky things our team had no control over and I was anxious to see if all the rest of the entry, descent and landing equipment would work. It was so exciting and nerve-wracking, and a relief that no error tones were coming in from the thermal sensors; every tone, every signal came back indicating that the heat shield was doing exactly what it was supposed to. And, of course, everything else worked as well.”

Following the successful landing of Curiosity, Beck admits to experiencing a bit of “…post-entry blues. Our baby had been delivered and now it is just a piece of litter,” she quips. But now it’s back to work on newer, less brittle materials and technology development for men to Mars, heavy masses to Mars, or other planetary missions. It’s just all in a day’s work for a mechanical engineer.