Crafting Shuttles: Labor Of Love, Vanishing Art
As space shuttle Atlantis orbits the Earth on NASA's last shuttle mission, it's worth remembering that key parts of this high-tech spaceship were handmade by people back here on Earth.
Five years ago, NPR profiled a few of the workers who make pieces of NASA's shuttles, using everyday tools like sewing needles and X-ACTO knives. With the shuttle program ending, NPR revisited those people to see how their lives are changing now that the shuttles will no longer need them.
Back in 2006, Theresa Haygood worked in a factory-like room at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The expert seamstress constructed small, white quilted blankets using glass thread and special heat-resistant cloth.
These thermal blankets are part of the heat shield that protects the shuttle during its fiery re-entry. Haygood sewed them into precise shapes that would fit onto the shuttle like pieces of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle.
"When you're making something for flight, you are always thinking about the people that it's going to protect," Haygood says. "And so you really are very conscious of how you're making it and your measurements and everything, because you know you might have someone's life in your hands."
The job used skills she had been perfecting since she was a child, begging her grandmother for needle and thread to make Barbie clothes. And it was exciting to work at a place that took sewing to the level of rocket science. But she left the space center last year, after more than eight years at the job.
"Well, the timing was right for me, for things going on in my family and my life, and so I just went ahead and took one of the early layoffs," Haygood says.
She had wanted to work at the space center for a long time — her father had worked there during the Apollo program — but it was clear that the days of shuttle-making were coming to an end. Haygood says she has been looking for jobs online, even at jobs in other states. It's a tough job market, especially around the space center. But she stays positive.
"There's always things that I can do. I always find something to do," Haygood says. "I can always take care of myself. I'm not worried about that, really."
'Anything But Mainstream'
The building where Haygood used to work is called the Thermal Protection System Facility. Its rooms are still full of equipment — not just old sewing machines, but things like ovens for baking space shuttle tiles. The manager is Martin Wilson, who works for NASA contractor United Space Alliance. When he gave NPR a tour five years ago, about 100 people worked here. Now there's only half that, he says, "and we'll be going down to just 20 after July."
"Some of these folks have been with us a very, very long time. A huge number have been here over 20 years, and they're extremely good at what they do," Wilson says. "These are people who have spent the majority of their careers working toward something that now simply is going away though no fault of their own."
Wilson, who has been here for over two decades himself, says he'll stick around for as long as they will let him, and he worries that as people go, so will all of their knowledge and experience. That could make it harder to create heat shields for any future spaceships.
"What we do is anything but mainstream," Wilson says. "If we are going to maintain a manned spaceflight program, we are going to need the skills that we have in this building."
One worker who has been told he can stay in the building is Damon Petty. When NPR met him back in 2006, he was putting tape on a shuttle tile, getting ready to apply a special coating. He still does that kind of work.
Petty is not sure exactly what heat shields he'll be working on next, but NASA is developing a new space capsule, and that will need tiles. And there may be work to do for commercial space companies. "Whatever they need to be done, hopefully I can be a part of it," Petty says.
He says after 22 years working with the shuttle program, it still thrilled him to know that tiles he helped make went up into space. "It's just amazing that, you know, it's been into orbit and it returns," Petty says. "I'm proud to say, 'I did that.' "
Petty says he won't just miss the shuttles, but also his co-workers. "Coming into work and not seeing those faces and the experience and talent that was in this building is going to be different; it's going to really have a big effect," he says.
When NPR first spoke with Betty Smith, she was working in the sewing room, stitching pieces of the heat shield. Now, she says her last day will be July 22. Smith has worked at the space center for over 21 years. After she leaves, she hopes to go back to school to learn another trade, maybe something in the medical field.
"I'm not quite old enough to retire, so I'm still going to have to go in a different direction, I guess," Smith says. "But it's doable. It's possible. There is life after the space center. There really is."
But she also feels a sense of loss: "The shuttles that we have helped build — they've been a part of our lives for so long, so it's personal to us," Smith says. "It's just like, I don't know, losing your kid — your kid moving away to college, and you know they're gone and things are never going to be the same. I think things won't be the same without looking up and seeing the shuttle go off. It just won't be the same."