Dominic Del Russo, '89, engineer and test subject for NASA, draws on a strong sense of adventure to bravely try out what the astronauts will wear and use in space.
When we hear the word "spaceship," we're likely to think first of a majestic rocket thundering into the bright blue sky, or maybe something carrying little green men.
Dominic Del Rosso has a much different perspective. As an engineer and test subject at NASA's Johnson Space Center, he has more than eight years of experience in designing-and being a human guinea pig inside-the spacesuits worn by astronauts when they venture outside the space shuttle.
Each of the incredibly complex, multimillion-dollar outfits is "a one-person spaceship," points out the 1989 UB aerospace engineering graduate. "Once an astronaut is outside the orbiter, the spacesuit has to provide everything that person needs." Those functions include breathing, of course, plus communication, heating and cooling, cardiovascular monitoring, and even protection from tiny meteors.
Interestingly enough, Del Rosso's career focus on outer space grew from his long-time interest in what is sometimes called inner space-the ocean.
"When I was 14, I first got certified for sport diving," says the Long Island native. "Then I joined the fire department in high school and learned to do search, rescue and recovery." He also earned certification as an emergency medical technician (EMT); as a result, he had gained a wide range of skills and experiences by the time he enrolled in UB's highly regarded aerospace engineering program.
When he reached his senior year, with its strong emphasis on hands-on design and applications, his enthusiasm for the field intensified. Then, serendipitously, Del Rosso's involvement in an extracurricular research project provided a life-altering experience.
The physiology/aerospace research project conducted by UB's Center for Research and Education in Special Environments was designed to shed light on "the bends," a painful decompression sickness that can occur when someone emerges too quickly from a pressurized environment, such as a deep-sea dive. Astronauts encounter similar risks because air pressure in a spacesuit is lower than normal.
To support this research, Del Rosso and two other test subjects (Dr. Dan Anderson and technician Gerry George) spent 10 days without a break in a pressurized chamber that simulated underwater conditions. "When I took part in the first saturation dives at UB," Del Rosso says, "it was the first time I had ever been involved in a real-life experiment where we didn't know the answers in advance."
After completing his bachelor of science degree, Del Rosso parlayed his schooling and life experiences into a job with Ocean Systems Engineering, an ocean engineering firm that was interested in breaking into the aerospace field. He soon went to Houston, Texas, where he gravitated to NASA.
Again, Del Rosso's academic training, combined with his diverse personal interests, took him into rarefied territory.
He signed on with the International Space Station project, where he became involved with the design and fabrication of the spacesuits, hand tools, and other support equipment that would be used during Extravehicular Activity (EVA), popularly known as space walks. His role, however, went far beyond the basics.
He became, as he wryly puts it, "a crash-test dummy."
"Anything that's critical for life support has to be two-fault tolerant redundant," he says. In other words, even if two critically important systems fail in a spacesuit, the astronaut inside must still be able to survive. In order to rate these systems under real life-and-death circumstances, Del Rosso explains, "somebody has to try it. We don't want to put an astronaut in a suit to re-create a failure. That falls to one of us. This is not to say that we, the test subjects, are expendable," he is quick to note. "Rather, we should have greater insight into failure and proper performance, since we are more intimately involved with the design, development and testing of hardware."
As one of a handful of NASA engineers certified for such high-level/high-risk testing, Del Rosso has spent more than 400 hours inside spacesuits in such inhospitable environments as underwater, in vacuum chambers, and aboard zero-gravity aircraft. "There are days when I come out a little beat up and bounced around," he reports. "You sometimes wonder just why you're doing this. But there's no reason to run 10 astronauts through it until we get it right."
Such experiences "give me a unique perspective," he acknowledges. "But once you've 'been there, done that,' you tend to be taken more seriously. That carries over into my job of managing projects."
As one talks with Del Rosso, whose interests also include skydiving, mountaineering, rock climbing, backpacking, skiing and ice hockey, it becomes more and more clear that he is a man who relishes living on the edge-although carefully so.
"I'm always trying new experiences, but I don't have a death wish. I'm very concerned with safety," he emphasizes. "I'm having too much fun to get killed and not be able to do this again.
"I enjoy finding out exactly where the edge of the envelope is," he continues. "I enjoy seeing how resilient the body can be." Still, his years as an EMT also make him painfully aware of the body's fragility.
His most recent mountaineering expedition offers a telling example of the ways in which Del Rosso struggles with that proverbial envelope.
He had gone rock climbing and backpacking, but he and some friends "wanted to try something a little bigger." They set their sights on Cotopaxi, a 19,498-foot-high active volcano in Ecuador. (Its equatorial location makes its peak the second-closest point to the sun on the earth's surface, he notes.)
Scaling the summit "was one of the most grueling experiences I've gone through, and the most rewarding," Del Rosso says. "It's a team effort and an individual effort. You might as well be alone, but you know there's someone else on the other end of the rope. Climbers call it the art of suffering."
Del Rosso also has been known to experience an adrenaline rush on the job when he's part of a space shuttle command team at Mission Control in Houston. "When things happen that you don't expect, that's the exciting part because it's not in the books. You dread and anticipate those calls from the support operations folks. It's a personal challenge to go figure things out."
Such moments aren't the only rewards Del Rosso finds in his job, however. He thoroughly enjoys his opportunities to speak to outside groups. His appearances have ranged from the International Space University to a visit with UB engineering students last fall to field trips by groups of schoolchildren. "It's interesting to be able to talk to those people. I get totally recharged. They're so interested in what we're doing," he says.
"Some of the questions that really take you aback are from the fifth-graders. It's neat to see how things that we take for granted leave them wide-eyed. The kids are usually more insightful than the adults!" (Their most frequent question, not surprisingly, is, "How do astronauts go to the bathroom?")
The aerospace engineer also finds a great deal of satisfaction in more down-to-earth applications of his work. For example, a current NASA technology transfer project has led to the design of cooling suits for children who suffer from xeroderma pigmentosum, which causes severe skin irritation from exposure to sunlight. "It was incredible to watch these kids go for a walk with their grandfather for the first time," Del Rosso relates. "There's so much potential to spin our technology back into uses that make an impact on the public."
Del Rosso looks upon his UB education as a key factor in his success. The courses and hands-on experiences he had at the university gave him "a solid education and a good technical background," he says.
He cites the experience with the underwater pressure experiment at UB as a turning point in his professional life-and one that reflects his underlying personal philosophy.
"You really have to find something you're personally interested in. Then, don't miss out on an opportunity to see where that takes you," he advises.
He invokes another mountain climbing adage that says, "In life there are no summits, so enjoy the climb."
"That's true," Del Rosso states. "When an opportunity presents itself, I want to get as much out of it as I can. It's so easy to get negative, but I can't really focus on that. I just shake myself and say, 'I'm working on some really cool stuff.'"
Freelance writer Leon M. Rubin keeps his feet on the ground in Boca Raton, Florida.