Former local student engineer for NASA project
A former student in the Steamboat Springs School District was among 250 scientists and engineers who teamed up to guide the Deep Impact spacecraft to a rendezvous with Comet Tempel 1 on July 3.
Amy Walsh, 34, went to school here during the 1980s and went on to earn a degree in aerospace engineering from UCLA. More than 5 years ago, Walsh was given responsibility at Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder for designing the flight computers that guided the spacecraft.
“We struggled all along, working to solve problems,” Walsh said. “It wasn’t until the last week that we actually started realizing how wild this really was. When the impactor hit the comet, it was amazing to see. It was almost unreal. I hadn’t anticipated the fidelity of the images.”
The goal of NASA’s Deep Impact mission was to gain new insights into the formation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago by smashing a small spacecraft into the comet. The resulting cloud of debris would offer material for analysis and study.
Walsh and her colleagues had to produce one-of-a-kind flight computers to guide the mission. The goal of intersecting the comet in deep space with two spacecraft, one of which would position itself to photograph the collision, required precision navigation and control.
“We used some off-the-shelf components, but there were two boards in the flight computers that we built completely from scratch,” Walsh said.
Before the flight computers were assembled, Walsh built prototypes from purchased components and used them to troubleshoot and de-bug the software.
Comets are composed of ice, dust and gas. They travel relatively undisturbed through the vacuum of space, and much of the material in their cores is thought to date back to the origins of the solar system.
To unlock the secrets of a comet, scientists at the University of Maryland formed a team with NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory to design a mission that would deliver a spacecraft onto a collision course with the comet. The contract to build the spacecraft for the mission was awarded to Ball Aerospace.
The first spacecraft (the flyby craft) was to deliver a smaller craft — the impactor — and release it into the path of the comet before drawing back to a safe distance from which to capture images.
The collision of the 820-pound impactor with the comet at 23,000 mph resulted in a crater estimated at 250 meters wide. The two spacecraft produced 4,500 images that will continue to be analyzed.
Walsh began attending school here in third grade and typically alternated school years between Steamboat Springs and her father’s home in Carpinteria, Calif. Walsh’s mother, Jeannie Berger, lives in Steamboat. After spending her sophomore and junior years at Steamboat Springs High School, Walsh graduated from Carpinteria High School in 1988.
Walsh said she had good teachers at both high schools. Dave Whittingham pushed her in math class at Steamboat Springs High School. She said it was Bud Romberg, her science teacher in Steamboat, who sent her to a four-day summer workshop at the University of Colorado that forever changed her original plans to become an architect.
“Mr. Romberg was definitely an inspiration to me,” Walsh said. “I think he had me pegged as an engineer.”
“She was a super student,” Romberg recalled. “The school district should be proud.”
On the Deep Impact project, Walsh’s tasks were more akin to those of an electrical engineer than the typical role of an aeronautical engineer.
“Engineers are driven by problems,” she said. “When you’re working on a problem, it eats away at you until you find the solution. As those problems come up, it’s like peeling away the layers of an onion.”
Although she’s still early in her career, Walsh isn’t certain she ever will work on another project that captures the imagination of the public the way Deep Impact did. If it works out that way, she will continue to gain plenty of professional satisfaction from unraveling every problem that comes her way.
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