McCaskey graduate reaches for the skies
BY TOM KNAPP, Staff Writer
His work is about to be out of this world.
Amadi Ramos, a McCaskey High School graduate, is heading to Florida to watch NASA's first rocket launch of 2013.
It's not just idle curiosity, or even a passion for aeronautics. The Atlas V rocket scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station late Wednesday evening will be powered in part by retro-rockets Ramos designed.
Ramos, who lives in Landisville and works for the missile products division of ATK in Elkton, Md., is something of a self-taught propulsion design engineer.
"I had to teach myself (rocket science) by reading textbooks, journals, design manuals," said Ramos, 37.
After graduating from McCaskey in 1993, Ramos earned a bachelor of science degree in industrial technology from Millersville University.
"That's where I really learned how to design," he said.
He then went on to earn a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from Penn State University, followed by a master's in mechanical engineering from Villanova, where he is pursuing a Ph.D.
"The only thing I wanted to be -- as long as I can remember, even as a kid -- was an engineer," Ramos said. "Always. There was nothing else."
He initially was interested in architectural engineering, he said.
"I wasn't really familiar with the different areas within engineering -- electrical, mechanical, aerospace, computers. I didn't really have a full grasp.
"I just knew that engineers tinkered, and that's what I loved to do. Even when I was a kid, if I broke something I tried to fix it," he added. "Sometimes I was successful, sometimes I wasn't, but that's what you do. You learn from your mistakes."
He landed what might be considered a dream job for his field -- he was an ordnance engineer, working with explosive devices -- when he decided he wanted something more.
He took courses on propulsion systems and airplanes, he said, and then began buying textbooks and design manuals to teach himself the skills needed for a new career.
It paid off.
Ramos was selected as lead engineer on this project in September 2009, after ATK produced a base design from specifications provided by the United Launch Alliance, which contracted with NASA to put a communications satellite into orbit.
Ramos said he's "extremely elated" to be able to watch the fruits of his labors lift off and slip free of the Earth.
The 40-minute launch window is scheduled to begin at 8:48 p.m., although NASA has announced that a cold front expected to move through central Florida may create showers and thunderstorms that could delay the mission.
The Atlas V will deliver "the first of a new generation of communications satellites" for NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, or Space Network.
According to a statement from NASA, the rocket will "loft the TDRS-K spacecraft ... on a course to geosynchronous orbit where the spacecraft will have a wide view of Earth. From that position, the spacecraft will provide communications with NASA's fleet of Earth-orbiting science spacecraft, including the International Space Station and NASA's Hubble Space Telescope."
The satellite will orbit about 22,300 miles above Earth, positioned roughly over Hawaii.
According to Ramos, when the booster rocket separates from the Centaur, or second-stage rocket, eight of his retro-rocket motors will fire to decelerate the booster and ensure that it moves safely away from the Centaur.
The separation will occur about 400,000 feet (75 miles) above the planet's surface.
"At 400,000 feet, you're in space vacuum conditions," Ramos said.
He's worked on rockets before, including motor design for a Mars lander, but this is the first project he's helmed "from womb to tomb" that has actually launched into space.
"There was a long road to get to this point, to be in the position where I am," Ramos said.
"I worked long days, long nights, to get this motor to fly. It wasn't easy. It was a long road, with a lot of hurdles."
Ramos will continue working on this project, producing retro-rocket motors for future launches -- both for NASA and the U.S. Air Force, which, Ramos said, "is buying more motors and has more missions than NASA does."
He'll also modify the motor as needed to offer to other customers.
"My goal is to eventually move on, get a new rocket program and start designing and analyzing again," he said.
He's already working on another project, designing a thermal protection system to shield the unit from the heat generated by a rocket motor.
"I always give thanks to God for giving me this opportunity. I'm very fortunate. I worked hard for this, but I was very fortunate."