Motorsports got him interested in engineering, and earthquakes gave him a focus. From there, structural engineer Georgios Tsampras found his way to SpaceX, where he played a role in the historic mission that’s now coming to a close. Today, he’s on to his next challenge—inspiring, motivating, and supporting his own students—just like Lehigh Engineering did for him.  

Georgios Tsampras ’16 PhD started racing go-karts in his native Greece when he was about 6 years old. His dad introduced him to the sport, and the more he practiced it, the more intrigued he became with the inner workings of the four-wheeled vehicles and the technical demands of driving them. 

He was getting ready for practice the day a big earthquake hit Athens. He and his dad rushed to get out of their house and away from surrounding buildings, some of which collapsed.

“Greece is a very seismic-prone area,” says Tsampras. “I’m used to it, and know how to react, but it’s always a bit terrifying.”

The earthquakes often left local communities devastated. And once Tsampras realized how hard it would be to pull off a career as a Formula One driver, he started thinking about how he could use his growing interest in engineering to protect vulnerable places.

“I enrolled in the civil engineering department at the University of Patras [in Greece] because I wanted to understand how buildings respond during an earthquake,” he says. “I thought it was a great opportunity to contribute.”

It was while pursuing his master’s degree at the university that he first heard about the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science. Several of his professors had earned PhDs in the United States, and when they learned Tsampras hoped to do the same, they immediately suggested he look into Lehigh University. 

“They were very familiar with the work Lehigh was doing on steel structures, and highly recommended that I apply,” says Tsampras. “And I will thank them forever for that.”

At Lehigh, Tsampras studied under Richard Sause, the Joseph T. Stuart Professor of Structural Engineering, director of the Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems (ATLSS) Center, and director of the Institute for Cyber Physical Infrastructure and Energy (I-CPIE). Tsampras worked with Sause and a team from the University of Arizona and the University of California San Diego on an alternative, innovative structural system that reduced the response of structures to earthquake ground motions. The project, he says, was “a perfect match.”

“My master’s program had been focused on this topic, so it was exciting to be part of this team effort,” he says. “We were able to conduct integrated numerical and experimental research. At Lehigh, we did full-scale tests of building segments. At UC San Diego, we did half-scale shake table tests of a four-story building. At the University of Arizona, we simulated earthquake effects with numerical analysis tools. It was definitely a unique opportunity to do something I really wanted to do.”


Applying the fundamentals

After receiving his PhD in 2016, Tsampras spent a couple years as an engineering consultant at Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc., in Boston, where he performed failure investigations of civil infrastructure and challenged himself with unfamiliar projects and problems. In March 2019, he joined SpaceX as a Falcon Vehicle structures engineer. He primarily conducted damage tolerance analysis for the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy launch vehicles. The vehicles are designed by SpaceX to be reusable and are built for the safe transport of people and payloads into orbit and beyond.

“It was another challenging problem, and I thought, Well, I may be able to contribute, or I may not, but the only way to find out is to try,” says Tsampras. “At the end of the day, fundamental physics are everywhere. Buildings are subjected to earthquakes, which are basically vibrations, and rockets are subjected to environments that can be driven by vibrations. So you can model things similarly and apply the basic principles in the same way.”  

Earlier this year, on May 30, Tsampras was sitting with his team—physically distanced, of course—watching the televised launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew Dragon spacecraft and NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS). The sight of the rocket streaking into orbit gave him goosebumps. In a spring dominated by news of the pandemic’s devastation, the successful launch was a rare bright spot—the first time that NASA astronauts launched from the U.S. in a commercially built and operated spacecraft. Though he had been at the company just over a year, Tsampras will forever be part of the historic mission, one he calls “a tremendous, collaborative effort.” 

“We were very nervous,” he says. “We worked through all the steps before launch and during launch, and the excitement was very high when we saw that everything was nominal. And when we saw we were having a successful mission, the excitement cannot be described.”

The NASA crew is scheduled to return on August 2. And when they do, it will be the most dangerous part of the mission. 

“The loads subjected to the Dragon capsule are greatest during re-entry,” says Tsampras. “So we still have a very big part of the mission left to ensure success.”

When the crew makes that return trip, however, Tsampras won’t be with his colleagues collectively working and worrying and rooting for each other. He won’t be there, because chances are, he’ll be preparing for class.

From mentee to mentor

This fall, Tsampras will start his first semester as an assistant professor of structural engineering at UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. He describes missing the completion of the SpaceX mission as a member of the team as bittersweet. But with this move to academia, he’s doing what he’s always done—seeking out the next challenge. And in this case, one that comes with the opportunity to give back. 

That’s because when Tsampras thinks about his time at Lehigh, and what set him up for success in his career, he immediately thinks of the mentorship he received from Professor Sause and others at the university. Theirs was the mentorship that both supported and challenged him, and helped him discover strengths and passion and curiosities he never knew he had. It was an environment where risk and failure helped forge the competence and confidence that helped him address increasingly complex problems in the real world.

“At the end of the day, fundamental physics are everywhere. Buildings are subjected to earthquakes, which are basically vibrations, and rockets are subjected to environments that can be driven by vibrations. So you can model things similarly and apply the basic principles in the same way.”
—Georgios Tsampras ’16 PhD

And Tsampras thinks about the access he had to high-quality research and to a facility like ATLSS. It was work that inspired and motivated him, honed his communication skills, and allowed him to collaborate and connect across disciplines, and across the academic community.  Connections that, ultimately, helped him land where he is today.

So while Tsampras is excited about the possibilities for research and collaboration with other scholars in this new role as assistant professor, what excites him most is teaching. Giving back through mentorship and opportunities. Doing what Lehigh did for him, for other students who want to make meaningful contributions to this world.

“This,” he says, “is a great opportunity.”

—Christine Fennessy is staff writer and multimedia content creator for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science