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Ahmed Fadl: Preventing Disaster at NASA

Antares Rocket

NASA engineer and URI graduate Ahmed Fadl found a fatal flaw in the launch mount system of the Antares rocket.

When handling a rocket with 500,000 pounds of volatile propellant, NASA doesn’t mess around. So when engineer Ahmed Fadl found workmanship flaws in the launch mount system for the Antares rocket that could spell disaster, the space agency scrubbed tests and ordered corrective actions. NASA considered the find so important that the agency presented the University of Rhode Island mechanical engineering graduate with one of its highest awards in December 2014.

NASA bestows the Space Flight Awareness Honoree Award to employees who display dedication to quality work and flight safety. Few win the award and most who do garner it decades after joining the agency. Fadl was nominated and selected just two years after arriving at NASA as a flight systems safety engineer.

“When you work with space rockets, you can easily have a catastrophic consequence if you’re not meticulous,” he says. “If we had proceeded with the hot fire test on the Antares without the launch mount being repaired, we were afraid a catastrophe could have occurred.”

It’s all in a day’s work for Fadl. His office spends months scrutinizing space rockets and their flight trajectories to determine potential hazards and calculate risks. Engineers draw up contingency plans and consider how a failure would impact people on the ground, in ships and even in planes. Moreover, since rockets travel around the world, Fadl must study the global consequences of a failure.

To analyze all the scenarios and trade-offs, Fadl says it’s crucial to consider different perspectives. He credits the URI International Engineering Program dual doctoral program with providing that. As part of the program, he earned doctorates from URI and from the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany. He also earned a master’s from URI and completed the International Engineering Program’s German Summer School before studying in Europe. Today he speaks three languages: English, German and Arabic and holds a deep understanding of multiple cultures.

“In the dual degree program, you realize you should not jump to a conclusion right away and you have to look at things from different perspectives,” he says. “You will not realize that in a classroom. You will realize that by living the experience.”

Ahmed Fadl

Ahmed Fadl

His experience and two doctorates caught the attention of NASA officials reviewing his resume. Less than a month after hiring him, they asked him to analyze the structural integrity of the launch pad for the liquid-fueled Antares rocket. The rocket carries spacecraft that ferry cargo to the International Space Station. Fadl half jokes that he received the complex and challenging assignment because he holds two degrees and most agency engineers hold just only one Ph.D., if any.

Elsewhere at NASA, Fadl served as the flight safety mission lead for the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer that studied the moon’s exosphere. As the safety lead, he authored the flight safety risk assessment and flight safety plan. For his work, NASA awarded him the Robert H. Goddard Exceptional Achievement Award for Safety in 2013.

“You really feel the impact of your work, especially when your work is related to safety because it’s extremely critical and highly valued,” he says. “I really cannot overstate the importance of our work.”

Nor, he says, can he overemphasize how his URI experience plays an important role in that work.

“I can write a book about how I benefited from this experience,” Fadl says. “I cannot name one drawback.”

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