JENNIFER NUFER, a graduate of the former St. John High School in Ashtabula, stands in front of space shuttle Atlantis. Nufer, 29, is an orbiter project engineer assigned to Atlantis, which recently concluded a mission.

St. John grad is orbiter engineer for Atlantis


Staff Writer

When space shuttle Atlantis safely glided to earth on Sept. 21, no one was happier - - and more relieved - - than Jennifer Nufer.

Nufer, a 1995 graduate of the former St. John High School, has a very special interest in the vehicle. As orbiter project engineer for Atlantis, there's little the 29-year-old doesn't know about the super-sophisticated spacecraft.

Nufer works for NASA, and helps implement engineering activities for Atlantis from launch to landing. There are 30 different engineering systems involved with Atlantis, and she "integrates the effort," she said.

It's an important position, and the best possible job for someone who has gazed at the heavens for as long as she can remember.

"I've always been interested in spaceflight," Nufer said. "The more I got into math and science, I thought about the possibility of working (for the space program)."

She graduated from Case-Western Reserve University with a degree in system and control engineering. During that time, she had an internship at the NASA Glenn center in Cleveland.

"That was my foot in the door," Nufer said. "I was hooked after that."

A job at a NASA facility in Hampton, Va., followed, as did a master's degree at Virginia Tech. She has worked at NASA's launch center near Titusville, Fla., for the past 14 months.

The latest Atlantis launch on Sept. 9 provided Nufer the experience of a lifetime - - a seat in the firing room three miles from the launch pad.

"It was the first time I sat at the console," she said. "It was a real thrill. We listened to the launch director talk to the crew. It's a very regimented procedure. Everything is documented.

"The shuttle really jumps off the pad," Nufer said. "But you're focused on the data, hardware and numbers, so you separate yourself from the emotion."

Minutes later, when the booster rockets separated from the shuttle, everyone dropped their guard.

"There was thunderous applause and hugs," Nufer said. "It was a fabulous day."

Nufer is the daughter of Michael and Denise McNabb of Saybrook Township. Denise joined her daughter in Florida for the launch - - but outside the firing room.

"It was just awesome to see," Denise McNabb said. "I could feel (the launch) reverberate through my bones. Jenny was locked inside the control room. I was thinking 'My daughter is in there.'"

The well-being of the shuttle crew is paramount, and every adjustment to the orbiter is done with the occupants in mind, Nufer said.

"Our goal is to fly safely," she said. "It's second to nothing. It's a dangerous business, an unforgiving business. But the people who work here are so dedicated. We make sure the vehicle is prepared."

Nufer is responsible for daily status reports on Atlantis, and co-workers meet regularly to discuss the vehicle.

"We're very open here," Nufer said. "Discussion is welcome. We do a lot of brainstorming. We get a lot of people involved to solve problems."

One day, Nufer - - who is acquainted with many astronauts - - hopes to hitch a ride into outer space.

"I would love it," she said, laughing. "I've always said I have the second best job here."

Besides Atlantis, the nation's shuttle fleet includes Discovery and Endeavor. Between them, the vehicles have about 16 flights left - - the bulk directly related to the construction of the international space station - - before they are retired.

After that, a new vehicle will make it's debut, one that can't be reused and harkens back to the Saturn missions, Nufer said.

"The new vehicle will be pretty exciting," she said. "I hope to be a part of the new vehicle."

Nufer expects more trips to the moon to prepare the space agency for the next big step - - manned missions to Mars. Techniques honed to reach and navigate the moon will pay dividends when Mars is finally put on the launch schedule, she said.

"(Moon travel) will help us learn the skills to reach that goal," Nufer said.

It's a long way from Ashtabula County to NASA - - and the stars - - but Nufer said she's had plenty of help along the way.

"My family and teachers were so instrumental," she said. "They told me to aim high."

Can one aim any higher than the heavens?

"I'm so lucky to be offered this position," Nufer said. "I have no desire to leave. I'm so happy with the choices I've made. I'll never lose my awe and inspiration."

Star Beacon Print Edition: 10/7/2006

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