Dr. Charles Camarda: Astronaut and Hometown Hero!

Dr. Charles Camarda, astronaut and hometown hero in Ozone Park, Queens, New York.

Profile of the Month
By Dr. Dhanpaul Narine

Something beautiful happened a few weeks ago. Dr. Charles Camarda returned to the place of his birth. He was warmly welcomed by many that wanted to find out about that most mysterious frontier: Space. Charles (Charlie) Camarda was born in Ozone Park, in Queens, New York. His parents had a business in Liberty Avenue for more than fifty years.

Charlie attended the Divine Mercy Catholic Academy and Archbishop Molloy High School. He was always fascinated by space and the planets. He would make rockets from his basement and disturb the peace of the neighborhood. Charlie’s tertiary education was at the Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, George Washington University, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, from where he earned his doctorate in aerospace engineering.

Charlie joined NASA in 1974 at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. He became a Research Scientist in the Thermal Structures Branch and conducted experiments and aerothermal testing in Langley’s eight-foot High Temperature Tunnel. His experiments were crucial to NASA’s continuing mission in view of the ‘Columbia disaster’ that took the lives of seven astronauts. In February 2003, on its return to earth, a large piece of foam fell from the shuttle external tank and breached the spacecraft wing that led to the disaster.

Charlie’s work on safety protocols has won the admiration of many. He has received more than 21 NASA awards for technical innovations and he holds seven patents. In 1996, Charlie was selected as an astronaut and completed two years of training at the Johnson Space Center. This qualified him for flight assignment as a mission specialist.

Astronaut Dr. Charles Camarda with Iris Rodriguez-Rosa and Sam Esposito.

The big moment came in 2005. During the period July 26th to August 9th of that year, Charlie flew on STS-114 Discovery. He was on a Return to Flight mission. His space shuttle docked with the International Space Station and the crew tested new procedures for flight safety. Charlie spent two weeks in space and clocked 5.8 million miles. His crew of seven landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base, in California.

Charlie’s visit to his hometown in Queens was eagerly awaited. It was arranged by Sam Esposito, president of Ozone Park Residents Block Association (OZPKRBA). Another sponsor was the Ozone Park, Howard Beach, Woodhaven Lions Club. The plaque to Charlie was from Louie and Felice Rovegno, owners of James Romanelli-Stephen Funeral Home in Ozone Park. It was presented by Iris Rodriguez-Rosa, First Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Parks Department, and the first Latina in this post.

Sam Esposito and his team have done tremendous work to better the quality of life in the community. Charlie said that he loved growing up in Ozone Park. He looked forward to his visits in the parks and liked to play sports. Charlie said his experience in space was a big deal coming at the heels of the Columbia tragedy. “I had a wonderful crew,” he said. “Eileen Collins was my commander. She was the first woman pilot of a US Space Shuttle. We had to conduct experiments in space to test new technology in order to prevent future shuttles from having another accident. We flew for fourteen days in space. It was an amazing experience. I love to share my experiences with children and I want to encourage them to take up science in schools. I will visit three schools on this visit.”

Was it easy living in space for two weeks in the absence of gravity? “It’s easy living in space,” Charlie says. “Your body goes through changes in zero gravity and you have to exercise a lot because you lose a lot of bone mass. We are planning to go to the moon and Mars so living in space will become popular in the future.” Charlie advised the young people to work hard in school and to take up science so they could one day become astronauts as well. How does one spend a typical day in space? Charlie explains, “We do a lot of experiments. There is some time to relax and we could chat with our friends and family on planet Earth. The cool thing would be to go outside the space station and do a spacewalk. The new astronauts will have to build things on the surface of the moon and Mars, and that will be very exciting.” What about life on the other planets?

Charlie says that probes are continuing on Mars but there is no definite proof as yet. What was he thinking when he saw planet Earth from space? According to Charlie, “When you look at Earth you see its thin and tiny atmosphere. You see how perfect the conditions are on Earth for life to exist, and the only reason why life exists is that thin layer of atmosphere that blocks the radiation and UV light and gives us the magnetic field. You see that Earth is really a small planet and we must take care of it and make it a better place. Hopefully, we will colonize other planets and extend the life of our species.”
Will life on earth come to an end some day? Charlie feels that it “is very possible.”

A rocket was launched to collide into an asteroid that could upset the solar balance. There is always the possibility of a cataclysmic event, and one should not rule out climate change. Life on Earth is delicate and should not be taken for granted. We should do all we can to protect and prolong it. A crew from CBS television turned up to interview Charlie and the hometown hero from Ozone Park was able to propel his community into another stratosphere.

We are proud of Dr. Charles Camarda. It was a rare opportunity to learn about the final frontier. We wish Charlie and his family all the best in the future.