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Ready for Shipment


Why does Liliana Villarreal need a bachelor's and two master's degrees to work on a suitcase? Because it's the world's most high-tech suitcase: the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), an International Space Station cargo module.

Lili Villarreal inside RaffaelloImage to left: Engineer Liliana Villarreal inspects parts of the Resupply Stowage Platform inside the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module Raffaello. Credit: NASA

There are three MPLMs, named Raffaello, Leonardo and Donatello. Built by the Italian Space Agency, the components are ferried back and forth to the Station aboard the Space Shuttle. All three 15-by-21-foot modules are in the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and Raffaello is in the last stages of preparation to fly on Space Shuttle Discovery on Return to Flight mission STS-114.

"We fill up the cargo module with racks, and those racks hold experiments, food supplies and clothing for the astronauts," describes Villarreal, an engineer with The Boeing Company, NASA's prime contractor for Space Station processing. "Anything that needs to go up to the Space Station, or anything that needs to come back from the Space Station, gets installed in the module."

Raffaello will carry 12 large containers called "racks." Although most of the load traveling to the Station will be supplies, the cargo includes the Human Research Facility-2, a biomedical research rack which will expand the Station's capability to support human life sciences research.

Villarreal began working with the MPLM group in 2000, after relocating to Florida from Seattle, Wash. "I work for two groups -- I work for the Lifting and Handling group, and I'm loaned out to the MPLM group," she explains. For the past year, she has helped prime Raffaello for Return to Flight.

Human Research Facility-2 is installed in Raffaello"We did a lot of preparation during the two years that we were not flying," she says. Villarreal quickly ticks off a list of just a few tasks the MPLM team accomplished during that stretch of time: The module's hatch was removed and reinstalled, all of the welds were inspected, and half of the racks were taken apart and modified to hold more weight.

Image to right: A worker stands by as the Rack Insertion Device slowly moves the Human Research Facility-2 (HRF-2) science rack into the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module Raffaello on March 8, 2005. The HRF-2 will deliver additional biomedical instrumentation and research capability to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

It's been a busy time for Villarreal, but she's accustomed to a fast pace. Her day begins like that of many other people: she readies her 7-year-old daughter for first grade and her 4-year-old son for pre-school, drops them off, and reports to work. But that's where the normalcy ends. When most employees are just sitting down at their desks or fixing their first cup of coffee, she's preparing to gear up from head to toe in a "bunny suit," a protective outfit that leaves only her face exposed as she works.

Villarreal's impressive resume belies her young age. At only 31, she's earned bachelor's and master's degrees in aerospace engineering, and even an additional master's degree in technology management. During her six years as a Boeing engineer, she's worked on projects from commercial aircraft to the MPLM program.

When asked where she'll be on launch day, Villarreal's eyes widen with excitement. "I'm definitely going to be out here at the Center watching that launch," she exclaims. "It's going to be a very special launch, and hopefully I'll be as close as I can get to the launch pad!"

Anna Heiney
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center

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