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Published: Wednesday, 11/2/2005

Bedford: NASA engineer guest speaker at Smith School

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TEMPERANCE - Matt Melis brought his work home with him last week and showed it to the students at Bedford's Smith Road Elementary School.

Their reaction?

"Cool!"

Of course, it helps that Mr. Melis - a Toledo native and 1977 graduate of Bedford High School - is a NASA engineer whose work involves, among other things, getting the Space Shuttle flying again. For several hours last week, Mr. Melis, 46, an engineer at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, riveted hundreds of young minds with images and stories of the monumental task of returning the Space Shuttle to flight following the Columbia disaster.

He told them how he once sat where they are, albeit at Larchmont Elementary in Toledo, and dreamed of space, and how the things they were learning today will "stack up like building blocks for what you want to do" later in life.

He showed silent film clips of the space shuttle launch last July when Discovery returned to space in what NASA called "the most photographed mission ever." He showed students photographs and first-ever film clips taken throughout the launch process, through separation of the solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank, and of its docking with the International Space Station.

"We were all excited to watch this because we've never had cameras in these locations before; so we've never been able to watch this," Mr. Melis explained. "These are very, very nice pictures."

The students at Smith Road asked a number of pointed questions about the disaster, from how it happened to how many astronauts died. Mr. Melis handled the queries with aplomb, explaining in simple English what had happened to America's space program that winter day over Texas.

"After the Columbia disaster, we had to stop flying so that we could fix the problems," Mr. Melis explained to scores of third and fourth graders. He detailed for them how a piece of foam was believed to have fallen off the external tank and crashed into the leading edge of Columbia's wing, damaging the heat-resistant tiles there and fatally exposing the shuttle to the searing heat of re-entry.

After his speech, Mr. Melis spoke with reporters about the main task he's been working on since Columbia disintegrated over the southeast United States on Feb. 1, 2003. A member of NASA's Ballistics Impact Team, Mr. Melis helped develop sophisticated computer modeling equipment that allowed scientists and researchers to simulate the launch damage believed to be responsible for bringing down Columbia.

"It was a two-year marathon" to determine what went wrong with Columbia and get the shuttle fleet flying again, Mr. Melis said. During that investigatory process and the large amounts of funding that followed it, NASA was able to develop computer modeling programs that can be shared with other agencies to help recreate the physics involved in catastrophic failures, Mr. Melis said.

"Because of movies like Star Wars, people often assume that space flight isn't dangerous anymore, that it's routine. But there are literally millions of things that have to go exactly right to get that orbiter into space," Mr. Melis said.



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