Capadona, with a Project Saffire payload, in 2015. Image: NASA
Holding a large Dunkin’ cup in one hand, Lynn Capadona gently pats the dome of a steel vacuum chamber 13 feet around, in the Zero-G facility at NASA’s John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. From 2012 to 2016, Capadona served as the chief engineer for Project Saffire, which tested how flames grow in space and involved setting fires remotely (to sheets of cotton and fiberglass) in a space cargo ship 200 miles above Earth. Sections of the Saffire prototype, which encompassed fire detection, suppression, and atmospheric clean-up systems, were dropped 432-feet down the chamber’s underground shaft, to study their responses to microgravity.
Now, as chief of NASA’s science and space technology systems branch, Capadona manages 15 full-time aerospace engineers and upwards of a dozen contractors. She spends most of a fall day power-walking across Glenn’s 300 acres of wind tunnels and laboratories (acoustics, combustion, cryogenics, propulsion) to “tag up” with four of her team. She dons a hairnet and pinstripe smock, passes through an “air shower” that removes static electricity, enters the cavernous Flow Boiling and Condensation lab, and inspects a 14-inch-long titanium cylinder that will be used in testing how various fluids boil in space. An electroshock “event” days earlier halted production, but Capadona is unfazed. “You have to encourage failure to advance projects here,” she says. “I always say just don’t—” two of her engineers interrupt to finish the adage, “cross the stupid line.”
The Canton, Massachusetts, native grew up an “80s shuttle kid,” she says. “I spent hours in front of the TV wondering, How in the world did that thing get off the ground?” She majored in chemistry at Boston College, earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Georgia Tech, and started at NASA in 2004. Among 10 current projects, she oversees development of solar-electric propulsion for deep-space exploration, with a 2019 budget of $300 million.
After lunch at Wild Mango, “the preferred Asian fusion spot among rocket scientists,” says Capadona, she attends a leadership panel discussing (mostly figuratively) “How do I think when my hair is on fire?” She quickly FaceTimes her two daughters, ages 8 and 11. And she tags up with engineers to talk about scheduling conflicts involving a defense contractor and to address problems with the wattage limits of a next generation Saffire payload.
“Budgets and priorities change, technical and personnel challenges arise a bazillion times. The best part of leaving today,” she says, “is knowing I’ll have a completely new puzzle to solve tomorrow.”