Sharpsville graduate works on rockets

May 6—As a child growing up in Sharpsville, Giavanna Piccirilli was interested in space, especially the idea of working on rockets and becoming a part of the spaceflight industry.

Now living in Melbourne, Fla., Piccirilli has since made that dream a reality as a rocket propulsion test engineer with United Launch Alliance.

"The crazy thing is that I always imagined launching rockets as my goal throughout school," Piccirilli said.

"Now that I've been doing it for five years, I know I'm exactly where I want to be."

Though she isn't sure when her interest in space first began, Piccirilli said she realized rockets were her passion when her family paid a visit to the Kennedy Space Center during a vacation while she was a young child.

Later as a high school student, Piccirilli spoke with her middle school math teacher — Joyce Cannone — about how to pursue her career goals.

Cannone shared Piccirilli's interest in space flight, having previously participated in the Teachers in Space program over the years, which included a course at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

"She had heard I was in the Teachers in Space program, and she was so interested," Cannone said of Piccirilli.

"I remember we were talking for about an hour, and then her mom called because she had been waiting in the parking lot that whole time."

Piccirilli took Cannone's advice to heart, and after graduating from Sharpsville Area High School in 2011, she attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

She majored in aerospace engineering and minored in space studies and mathematics, and graduated in 2015.

Traveling from a small town like Sharpsville to Embry-Riddle was a "major change" for her, but Piccirilli credits her family with supporting her and her goal of working on rockets.

"I'm sure they wanted me to go to school closer to home, but they knew that I needed to apply to schools out-of-state for me to follow my dream," Piccirilli said.

"I don't think I would be where I am today if I didn't branch out and make that move."

Piccirilli added that she was glad Cannone took her interest in space seriously, despite coming from a small town.

"When you aspire for something like what I'm doing, there's so many people that won't take you seriously," Piccirilli said.

Piccirilli's first job out of college was at Northrop Grumman, where she had interned the summer before she graduated.

Piccirilli worked for a few years as a stress analyst with Northrop Grumman running stress tests on different parts of military aircraft.

While she enjoyed working at Northrop Grumman, Piccirilli said she knew she didn't want to stay with the company and hoped to eventually work on spacecraft.

"Engineering is something where you don't know exactly what kind of engineering you want to do until you do it," Piccirilli said.

"For me being an analyst, I was at a desk all day doing the same thing in and out. It was a good experience, but it wasn't the kind of engineering I wanted to pursue for my career."

Piccirilli then went to United Launch Alliance, or ULA, as a rocket propulsion test engineer.

She works specifically on the rocket's second stage, running tests on the stage and engine. Then on launch day, Piccirilli and the other engineers configure the systems themselves and oversee the rocket's fuel being loaded from the control center.

Piccirilli started at ULA in 2018, and went to work on a Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying the NROL-71 payload.

By that time there had already been some launch issues with the rocket, which Piccirilli said made the experience even more "nerve wracking."

The work by Piccirilli and the other engineers paid off, as the NROL-71 mission successfully launched in 2019, delivering a spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office into space.

Piccirilli said that first launch remains a moment of pride, and that it was an "amazing" feeling to be in the control center on that day.

"There's so many pieces of the puzzle that have to work together for everything to work, and only one thing has to go wrong for it to not be successful," she said.

"It is kind of a funny feeling afterward, because you spend months working on it and you see it sitting on the launch pad every day, then after the launch your work is gone."

Since then, Piccirilli has been involved in about 30 launches and worked on the Delta and Atlas, which are ULA's two main rockets. Some payloads have included satellites and Mars rovers.

Piccirilli has also worked on NASA's Artemis program, which uses a modified version of the Delta's second stage. The Artemis program aims to eventually help humans return to the Moon.

While the Delta IV Heavy will always be Piccirilli's favorite rocket, she said she is very interested in the Artemis program.

"I think trying to go back to the Moon is going to be a very important next step for humanity, and I love that they're trying to put the first woman on the Moon," Piccirilli said.

Piccirilli said she loves the Florida weather, but still keeps in touch with her family in Sharpsville.

In the meantime, Cannone, who helped Piccirilli in high school and remained in touch with her former student over the years, moved to Venice, Fla. with her husband.

Cannone even was able to meet up with Piccirilli while she was studying at Embry-Riddle, and the two continue to communicate.

"When I taught at Sharpsville, those kids were goal-oriented, and I've had doctors, engineers, lawyers, pharmacists — so much talent come out of those classrooms," Cannone said.

"And when I see Giavanna, who had these goals all those years ago and has since accomplished those goals, I feel so proud of her."

For other potential students looking to pursue a career in spaceflight, Piccirilli said to never think a goal is too big to accomplish.

For those about to graduate high school, finding the right college is the next step, as is interning whenever possible.

"If you know what you want to do, try to get into a school that is very specialized or has a great program for that, and an internship is a great way to figure out if it's the right fit for you," Piccirilli said.

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