Frank Cepollina

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Frank J. Cepollina
Ceppi inventor lg.jpg
Frank Cepollina at National Inventors Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
Born 1936
Castro Valley, California
Residence Annandale, Virginia
Nationality United States
Fields Aerospace
Institutions NASA
Alma mater University of Santa Clara
Known for In-orbit satellite servicing techniques

Frank J. "Cepi" Cepollina was born in 1936 in Castro Valley, California is an American engineer and inventor. He was officially inducted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his pioneering concept of in-orbit satellite servicing in May 2003. His organizational leadership style has been compared to that of Al Davis of the National Football League's Oakland Raiders.

Life and education[edit]

A Northern California native, Cepollina attended the University of Santa Clara and earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1959. Before joining NASA in 1963, he worked for four years for the Aerojet General Corporation and the Defense Intelligence Agency. When he was 27 years old, he signed on with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center where he helped developing several spacecraft. He also led the development of the Explorer Platform, which enabled the exchange of scientific payloads in orbit.

Since his early career, he specialized in designing satellites and spacecraft, and looked for engineering solutions that would make satellites more robust. The problems he dealt with were the difficulties spacecraft industry was facing in the late 1960s. His list of accomplishments includes innovative techniques for servicing satellites, designing new tools and interfaces for astronauts, and leading the historic 1993 repair mission for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Cepollina is a researcher even in his everyday life; it is noted that when he is not busy looking for ways to improve Hubble's eye on the universe, he can be found at home tinkering with model O gauge railroads. "I've found great satisfaction in this hobby for more than 40 years," he says. "And it's a nice escape from the daily grind.[1] "

Cepollina is currently the manager of NASA's Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He and his wife, Ann [deceased] raised their 4 children in Annandale, Virginia. Cepollina has eight grandchildren (one deceased) located in the Northern Virginia area, as well as on the West Coast.

Cepollina as an inventor[edit]

It is important to note the dissatisfaction and the problems in the early days of space exploration in order to understand better the improvements made by Cepollina. The amount of engineering and effort required to do work in space were surprising for the engineers in the early days of the manned space program. For instance, the astronauts Eugene Cernan and Thomas Stafford who were launched into space aboard Gemini 9 on June 3, 1966 had to deal with unimagined difficulties as soon as Cernan began a space walk. The plan called for Cernan to take some photographs and enjoy weightlessness for a few minutes before working his way to the rear of the capsule. From the moment he emerged from the capsule, everything Cernan did was much harder than what he expected. He said his space suit felt like a suit of armor, and that every weightless movement triggered an equal, opposite reaction. He found himself repeatedly flying out to the end of the umbilical cord connecting him to the Gemini capsule and then rebounding in an unexpected direction. Medics on the ground were alarmed when his heart rate increased to 155 beats a minute. He perspired enough to fog his helmet visor, and sweat pooled in his eyes . He ripped an insulating layer in the back of his suit, and he instantly felt the fierce, bare sunshine; he returned to Earth with painful burns.[2]

Cepollina marks that "the experiences of NASA's first space walkers pioneered a lot of the technologies we use today." First of all, these initial attempts made clear the need for a change in space-suit design. The Gemini 9 astronauts wore suits inflated to 14 pounds per square inch because that's about normal pressure on earth. NASA cut the level to 4 PSI, reducing the feeling of working inside an overinflated balloon. Furthermore, a new training was developed for moving about in space: practice sessions underwater since moving in a liquid resembles the effects of weightlessness.[3] However, the main challenge was conquering the exhaustion that Cernan had encountered. Cepollina states that their solution was to come up with power tools they could use to limit fatigue, and in order to reduce fatigue, an engineer in Cepollina's team, Paul W. Richards came up with a pistol-grip device that looks like a battery-powered hand drill on steroids.

In-orbit servicing In his article "In-Orbit Servicing", Cepollina states that in the late 1960s, as inflation and constrained budgets limited the space program, NASA determined three ways of reducing costs: standardized spacecraft components; use of the same spacecraft to do several missions; and use of the Shuttle to extend or renew the useful life of the spacecraft by replacing subsystems and instruments in the orbit.[4]

Why in-orbit servicing? Earth Observing System (EOS), which is a program of NASA comprising a series of artificial satellite missions and scientific instruments in Earth orbit, asked Grumman Aerospace, General Electric and TRW Systems to define the most cost effective mode for using the space shuttle. The companies identified four different methods of “renewing” the defective spacecraft:[4]

  • Launch replacement satellites on conventional booster
  • Launch replacement satellites by shuttle
  • Launch replacement satellites by any of the methods mentioned above and retrieve the defective one for ground refurbishment by Shuttle
  • Replace the malfunctioning system of the defective satellite in orbit by Shuttle

When the costs of these four methods were compared, in-orbit servicing was found to be the lowest.

What are the changes that comes with in-orbit servicing? On the other hand, such an approach called for a totally different spacecraft design. In this new concept, each subsystem occupied its own separate drawer or removable module in the spacecraft. For example, all the components having to do with supplying power (the power unit of the space craft) would make up one module so that if something wrong happened with the power unit, that part of the spacecraft was easily taken out and renewed.

In-orbit serviced satellites[edit]

From his early days with NASA, Cepollina has worked on engineering solutions for satellites and spacecraft. In the late 1960s, satellite failure was becoming a significant problem, and engineers at NASA, including Cepollina, began working on a new type of Multimission Modular Craft.[5] As described by Cepollina, these crafts would have swappable parts and could potentially be fixed easily by space-walking astronauts.

Solar Maximum Mission satellite[edit]

The first modular craft to fly was the Solar Maximum Mission satellite, launched in 1980 to conduct astronomical observations of the sun.[6] When it began to fail several months into orbit, Cepollina was asked to lead the repair mission, begun in 1984. The mission the first of its kind was a success; the modular craft concept proved effective. Cepollina was lauded for his leadership on the project and was subsequently named Satellite Servicing Project Manager.[7]

Hubble Space Telescope[edit]

After the Solar Maximum Mission Satellite, as the Satellite Servicing Project Manager, Cepollina was faced with an enormous challenge: repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. The mission he undertook has widely been cited as the most difficult on-orbit repair mission ever attempted. Having worked on the development of its modular design, as well as its command and control subsystem, Cepollina knew the Hubble well. However, few could have anticipated that the Hubble, launched in 1990 and orbiting 375 miles above the Earth, would have such a simple but crucial problem: a flawed mirror.[8] NASA officials were appalled and embarrassed to discover that the contractor responsible had a miscalculation that made the telescope incapable of coming to a sharp focus.[9]

This unexpected problem was too serious to fix by simply swapping out a defective module, so Cepollina became project manager of a hurriedly assembled team charged with repairing the telescope. "The first Hubble repair mission took us to the next level of servicing", he said. His team designed new optical elements that could correct the Hubble's flawed vision yet also fit in with the modular instrument design philosophy. Cepollina led additional successful repair and improvement missions for Hubble in 1997, 1999, 2002, and 2009.[10] These additional missions enhanced the satellite to implement technologies which were not available at the time of Hubble's initial deployment, including better cameras, more efficient solar arrays, and a more powerful processor for data transfer.[11]

Inventions applied in other fields[edit]

Not only has Cepollina's work benefited the advancement of space technology, but it has also led to improvements in several other industries including a much more accurate method to detect breast cancer that uses technology originally developed for Hubble's charge coupled device (CCD).[12] Other improvements are smaller and faster microchips created with highly sophisticated Hubble-type optics,[13] and manufacturing applications employing an intelligent, programmable, hand-held power tool.[14]

Cepollina as a team leader[edit]

In addition to being a successful inventor, Cepollina is also a team leader. His work with the Hubble highlights his character as a leader. He is currently the manager of NASA's Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Among his numerous awards, Cepollina received the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal for the Hubble Space Telescope First Servicing Mission.

In his presentation “The Hubble Experience”,[15] he mentions that the success of the Hubble repair mission was due to the harmony among the partners of the project. Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Glenn Research Facility, Langley Research Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA all worked together and shared responsibilities in order to repair Hubble. As the team leader, Cepollina was responsible for keeping the individual groups in accord, and he managed to do so.


In 1985, Cepollina received a NASA Exceptional Achievement Award for leading the Solar Max Repair Mission. For his outstanding leadership of the Hubble Space Telescope First Servicing Mission, which corrected Hubble's vision, he was awarded a NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, as well as the prestigious 1994 National Space Club Eagle Manned Mission Success Award. In April 1995, he received the University of Santa Clara Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award and was inducted into Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society as an Eminent Engineer. In October 1997, Mr. Cepollina was presented with the James J. Kerley Award, the top NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Award for innovation and exceptional contributions to NASA’s technology transfer and commercialization efforts.

In 1997, Mr. Cepollina was named a finalist for the Design News Engineer of the Year Award. In April 1998, he received the distinguished Federal Laboratory Consortium Award for Excellence in Technology Transfer. In February 2000, he was awarded Goddard Space Flight Center's highest honor for mission success, the Robert C. Baumann Memorial Award. In 1999, he and his team received the Aviation Week & Space Technology Laurels Award for Outstanding Achievement. In 2000, the President of the United States conferred upon Mr. Cepollina the rank of Meritorious Executive in Senior Executive Service for his sustained, superior accomplishments in managing NASA programs. He and the entire Hubble Space Telescope Team won the prestigious 2001 Space Foundation Space Achievement Award. In 2003, he was inducted to the National Inventor's Hall of Fame for satellite servicing techniques.[16][12]

In 2013 Cepollina received the Werner Von Braun award for spaceflight project management, and in 2014 he received the Carl Sagan award for the advancement of science and technology.


  • Method and Associated Apparatus for Capturing, Servicing, and De-Orbiting
    • Application US 2007/0125910 A1
    • Application US 2007/0138344 A1
    • Application US 2007/0164164 A1
    • Application US 2008/0011904 A1
    • Patent Number: 7240879
  • Strain Gauge Measuring Techniques
    • Patent Number: 3460378


  1. ^ "Press Release -HUBBLE MANAGER PART OF TEAM TO RECEIVE IAA AWARD October 05, 2004. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (accessed June 24, 2008).
  2. ^ "" American History from (accessed June 25, 2008).
  3. ^ Roth, E.M.. "Physiological Effects of Space Cabin Atmospheres." Radiation Research Supplement 7 (1967): 413.
  4. ^ a b Cepollina, Frank. "In-Orbit Servicing." American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics 3 (1975): 48-56.
  5. ^ Cepollina, F.J., and E.I. Pritchard. "STS multimission modular spacecraft - A new horizon in social and industrial benefits." Astronautics and Aeronautics 15 (1977): 36-43.
  6. ^ "The Solar Maximum Mission" HEASARC: NASA's Archive of Data on Energetic Phenomena (accessed June 25, 2008).
  7. ^ "Goddard News" NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (accessed June 26, 2008)
  8. ^ "The Hubble Program - Servicing Missions - SM1" Main Hubble page (accessed June 25, 2008).
  9. ^ Jim, Quinn. "Repairman In Space." Invention & Technology magazine 19. (2003)
  10. ^ Cepollina, Frank. "Economic and technical aspects of repair, servicing, and retrieval of low earth orbit free flying spacecraft." AIAA October (1982): 4.
  11. ^ "Inventor of the Week: Archive" MIT (accessed June 24, 2008).
  12. ^ a b "Invent Now | Hall of Fame | Search | Inventor Profile" Invent Now (accessed June 25, 2008).
  13. ^ "Cepollina, Frank - Biography" NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (accessed June 24, 2008).
  14. ^ "Inventor of the Week: Archive" MIT (accessed June 24, 2008).
  15. ^ Cepollina, Frank. "The Hubble Experience: Working in a Multiple Center Environment." Project Management Challenge 2006, NASA, Galveston, Texas, March 21, 2006.
  16. ^ "Inventor of the Week: Archive" MIT (accessed June 24, 2008)