Crafting Shuttles: Labor Of Love, Vanishing Art

Jul 18, 2011
Originally published on July 18, 2011 11:25 am

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."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

As Space Shuttle Atlantis orbits the Earth on NASA's last shuttle mission, it's worth remembering that this high tech spaceship is also, in many ways, homemade. Five years ago we introduced you to a few of the workers who made key parts of NASA's shuttles by hand. They used everyday tools like sewing needles and Exacto knives. Now that the shuttle program is ending, NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce decided to revisit those people, see how their lives have changed now that the shuttles no longer need them.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: When my colleague David Kestenbaum visited Florida's Kennedy Space Center back in 2006, he walked into a factory-like room. There he saw women sewing what looked like small white quilted blankets. They were thermal blankets, part of the heat shield that protects the shuttle during its fiery re-entry. One of the workers was Theresa Haygood.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: What are you doing there?

Ms. THERESA HAYGOOD: I'm threading a bobbin.

KESTENBAUM: Is it special thread?

Ms. HAYGOOD: Oh yeah, it's made out of glass.

KESTENBAUM: Made out of glass?

Ms. HAYGOOD: Um-hum, everything we have in here is made out of glass.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: With the glass thread, she could sew heat-resistant cloth into precise shapes that would fit onto the shuttle like pieces of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle.

But when I went to Florida a few weeks ago, I couldn't meet up with Theresa Haygood at the space center. She left that job last year. She says it was clear that the days of shuttle-making were coming to an end.

Ms. HAYGOOD: 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I met her in the town of Titusville, which is right across the Indian River from the space center. We stood on a pier and looked across the water. In the distance we could see the big vehicle assembly building where NASA used to put its shuttles together. Haygood remembers her old job as being both challenging and meaningful.

Ms. HAYGOOD: When you're making something for flight, you know, you're always thinking about the, you know, people that it's going to protect. And so you really are very conscious of how you're making it and your measurements and everything because you know that you might have somebody's life in your hands.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The job used skills she'd been perfecting since she was a child.

Ms. HAYGOOD: I kind of taught myself and I'd follow my grandmother around, bug her for a needle and thread all the time. I know she got tired of it. But I started out making Barbie clothes and then I found out making people clothes was a lot easier, so I just went from there.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: To tailoring, upholstery, drapes, and eventually to the job that took sewing to the level of rocket science. Her father had worked for the Apollo program. Haygood applied and reapplied until the space shuttle program finally hired her. She stayed there for more than eight years.

Haygood says she's been looking for jobs online, even at jobs in other states. It's a tough job market, especially around the space center.

Ms. HAYGOOD: There's always things that I can do. I can I always find something to do. I can always take care of myself. I'm not worried about that, really.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: 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 here is Martin Wilson. He's with a NASA contractor called United Space Alliance. When he gave NPR a tour five years ago, about a hundred people worked here. Now there's only half that.

Mr. MARTIN WILSON (Manager, United Space Alliance): And we'll be going down to just 20 after July.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So from 50 to 20?

Mr. WILSON: Yes, from 50 to 20.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The early layoffs were mostly voluntary buy-outs, like Theresa Haygood's, but not these last ones.

Mr. WILSON: 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. These are people who have spent the majority of their careers working towards something that now simply is going away through no fault of their own.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Wilson has been here for over two decades himself, and says he'll stick around for, quote, "as long as they will let him." He worries that as people go, so will all their knowledge and experience, making it harder to create heat shields for any future spaceships.

Mr. WILSON: What we do is anything but mainstream. I mean, there are simply not thermal protection system manufacturers, you know, down every high street in the country. If we're going to maintain a manned spaceflight program, we are going to need the skills that we have in this building.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One worker who's been told he can stay in the building is Damon Petty. When we last met him, five years ago, he was putting tape on a shuttle tile, getting ready to apply a special coating. He still does that kind of work.

Mr. DAMON PETTY (Employee, United Space Alliance): I just so happen to be one of the lucky ones, I guess, to hang around.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's not sure exactly what heat shields he'll be working on next. NASA is developing a new space capsule. That will need tiles. And there may be work to do for commercial space companies.

Mr. PETTY: Whatever they need to be done, hopefully I can be a part of it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says, after 22 years it still thrilled him to know that shuttle tiles he helped make went up into space.

Mr. PETTY: It's just amazing that, you know, it's been in the orbit, and it returns, and hey, I'm proud to say, I did that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says he won't just miss the shuttles but also his co-workers.

Mr. PETTY: 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.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Do you know folks who have already left, have they been able to find stuff to do?

Mr. PETTY: No, I'm not sure. I know of a few that's relocated, moved out of the state, that's gotten jobs. But around here I really don't know of many that has jobs around this area still.

Ms. BETTY SMITH (Employee, United Space Alliance): My last day will be July the 22nd.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: When NPR first spoke with Betty Smith, she was working in the sewing room. The day I visited, she was still there, stitching a spare part in case Atlantis needed to be repaired before launch. Smith has worked here for over 21 years. She hopes to go back to school, maybe do something in the medical field.

Ms. SMITH: I'm not quite old enough to retire so I'm still going to have to go in a different direction, I guess. But it's doable, it's possible. There is life after the space center. You know, there really is.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But there's also a sadness.

Ms. SMITH: The shuttle fleet, you know, the shuttles that we have helped build, they've been a part of our lives for so long so it's personal to us. And just the fact that it's all going away. 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, you know, without looking up and seeing the shuttle go off. It just won't be the same.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says it feels like a great loss. Not just for her and all the other people who have built the space shuttles, but for the whole country. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.