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Published: 10/4/2008

University of Toledo alumnus had role in rescue of space station

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Floating 240 miles above the earth, the International Space Station is humankind's biggest outpost and continues to grow module by module in size.

Yet early in its life, the station came perilously close to being abandoned after a string of on-board computer failures.

The high-stakes repair job involved a team of technicians and a dose of crisis-sparked creativity not unlike that which saved the crew of Apollo 13 on their ill-fated trip to the moon.

The station's computer team included University of Toledo alumnus Robert Dempsey, who went on to become a NASA space station flight director.

He was among the 28 UT alums honored last night by their respective colleges at the university's annual Homecoming Gala.

A native of Redford, Mich., Mr. Dempsey, 45, received master's and doctoral degrees in physics from UT in 1987 and 1991, respectively, with a focus on astronomy.

He finished his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan.

There were three people on the space station plus another seven aboard the docked Space Shuttle Endeavour in April, 2001, when all three of the station's main computers shut down during checks of the outpost's then-new robotic arm.

Mr. Dempsey, employed at the time with space station contractor United Space Alliance, said the problem was a design flaw in the computers' hard drives.

"The station was essentially dead," Mr. Dempsey said. "We were very close to losing the space station altogether if we couldn't get them working again."

Computers operate everything on the station from its telemetry systems to lights.

Without them, the station would fall in orbit, eventually burning up in the Earth's atmosphere.

"The shuttle was docked to it at the time, and we probably would have had to just punch off and let the station free-tumble away and slowly die," said Mr. Dempsey, who previously worked as a contractor on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Mr. Dempsey was the leader on the ground of the crisis team charged with fixing the station's computers.

After much brainstorming, his team succeeded in slowly uploading new software directions to the computers that bypassed the hard drives.

The station crew then physically swapped in spare hard drives to get the computers back online.

"It was 20-hour days for me for about six days straight," he recalled.

Two years later, Mr. Dempsey joined NASA as a communications and tracking officer for the space station.

In 2005, he became a station flight director, and was its lead flight director for six months last year.

"For those six months, I was in charge of everything on the space station - day-to-day, minute-by-minute," the Houston resident said.

He's intimately involved in the planning and training of astronauts for their space station missions, and undergoes some of the same physical preparations they do.

He has experienced the so-called "Vomit Comet," a jet aircraft in free-fall pursuit of about 25 seconds of weightlessness.

The space station experienced another computer failure crisis in June, 2007, this time involving Russian computers.

The problem, which had the potential to force an evacuation, eventually was traced to condensation inside electrical connectors.

Mr. Dempsey spoke of his space program experiences yesterday at Wernert Elementary School and Robinson Middle School in West Toledo, and on Thursday in the auditorium of UT's Driscoll Center for Continuing Education.

He also presented a Toledo Rockets pin that flew in February on Space Shuttle Atlantis.

He gave the pin to the university's physics and astronomy department and the Ritter Planetarium and Brooks Observatory.

Mr. Dempsey said that a significant reason why he applied to UT was the observatory's one-meter Ritchey-Chretien reflecting telescope, the largest optical telescope in Ohio.

During graduate school, he visited the telescope "every night that it was clear."

"It's very hard on your social life," he recalled. "Try asking a woman out and saying, 'We can go out on a date when it's cloudy.'•"

Other alumni honored at last night's gala included former UT basketball player John Rudley, class of 1970, and native Toledoan Terrence Perris, who graduated from UT as an undergraduate in 1969 and was later selected as a law clerk for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.

Now a corporate tax attorney, Mr. Perris has been a partner since 1980 with Squire, Sanders, & Dempsey in Cleveland.

Mr. Rudley played point guard on the men's basketball team in the late 1960s, including Toledo's best-ever 23-2 record in 1966-67. He now is president of Texas Southern University, a historically black college in Houston.

Other honored alumni were Helen Marlais; Andre Russell; Lindsey Jurski; Paul Raczkowski; Richard Markoff; Charlene

Czerniak; Jim Appold; Roy Armes; Arthur Hatch, Jr.; Betsy Davis; Daniel Wagner; Sara Skow; Bob Sterling; Reginald Routson; Stewart Greenleaf; Bryan Baugh; Bill Crounse; Ann Locher; Laura Manzey; Marty Davis; Rebecca Riley; Carol Thomas; Carrie Serber; Jim Scheib, and Bill Koester.

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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