Space Shuttle : A Homemade Spaceship

Space Shuttle Atlantis is on the launch pad. Like the others, it has some two million parts. The shuttles have been called some of the most complicated machines ever made. But their construction is remarkably down to earth.

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The Space Shuttle Atlantis is on the launch pad. If all goes well, Sunday will mark the program's 116th mission. Each shuttle has some two million parts. They've been called one of the most complicated machines ever made. But these are also homemade spaceships, made by workers using X-acto knives and sewing needles.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

If you watched the first shuttle flight after the Columbia accident, you may remember that just before landing there was some concern about an insulation blanket that had puffed out just below a window. You may have thought, blankets? There are blankets protecting the space shuttle? The answer is yes, hundreds of them stitched by hand or with the help of a sewing machine.

(Soundbite of sewing machine)

Mr. MARTIN WILSON (Production Manager, United Space Alliance): Don't stick your hand under there. It'll punch a needle right through your hand and it won't miss a beat when it's doing it.

KESTENBAUM: That's Martin Wilson, a production manager who works for a contractor, United Space Alliance. We're in a factory-like room at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Wilson says the sewing machine is a Singer 9710. They have three of them. The oldest was built in 1918.

Mr. WILSON: If you have a look at the needle, the needle's walking. And it was originally made for sewing saddle leather or any application where you'd need to punch a huge needle through a lot of material but without marring the surface in any way.

(Soundbite of sawing)

KESTENBAUM: Theresa Haygood(ph) has worked here for about five years.

What are you doing there?

Ms. THERESA HAYGOOD (United Space Alliance): 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: Mm-hmm, yeah. All this, everything we (unintelligible) have in here is made out of glass.

KESTENBAUM: Silica fiber is good for resisting heat. Each blanket is white, perfectly quilted in small squares. The one they're working on looks like it might be part of some kid's Halloween costume, maybe a tail for a small dinosaur.

It actually goes under the chin of the space shuttle and it helps protect the shuttle from the heat of reentry. After a certain number of flights, the blankets get pretty beat up and they have to be replaced.

Betty Smith(ph) has worked here for 17 years.

Ms. BETTY SMITH (United Space Alliance): We take such pride in our work, and when they come back they look like they balled them up and just slung them. So we get kind of upset, but there's nothing we can do about that.

KESTENBAUM: What do your kids say when they know their mom works building spaceships?

Ms. SMITH: Well, my daughter thought I could bring her home a moon rock and I'm like, no, sweetie, I can't bring you back a - she actually had her teacher convinced. But she's proud of me, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: Can I ask what it was like here after Columbia?

Ms. SMITH: It was very sad. You know, when we lost them it was very - I mean, it hurt, it really hurt, you know because they're dependent on us. We feel like, you know, we're taking care of them by protecting them, you know, with the insulation that we do and the work that we do. So, you know, every time that bird leaves, we're praying; but I wasn't ready for this day.

KESTENBAUM: There are many rooms like this at NASA, each with a worker who knows a lot about a little part of the shuttle. For some, the job is just a paycheck; but many feel like they're a small part of history.

In another part of the space center, Damon Petty(ph) sits at a work bench. He covers a white block with masking tape and trims the tape with an X-acto knife. This is one of the shuttle's heat resistant tiles that can withstand thousands of degrees. He's getting ready to apply a black outer coating. Petty has worked here for 17 years.

Mr. DAMON PETTY (United Space Alliance): Yes, we have to make sure they're built and made perfect because there's a lot of lives depending on it and at stake, so I take great pride in everything I do, especially this part of the program.

KESTENBAUM: A shuttle has 24,000 tiles, each with a precise shape, each with a long serial number. The place looks more like a garage than a high-tech space facility. But there's no magic to getting people into space, just a lot of engineering, checking and rechecking.

Martin Wilson, the manager here, picks up a tile. It's shockingly light.

Mr. WILSON: An average tile weighs only a few ounces. They're really very, very lightweight. Yes, the black outer coating is quite dense but it's extremely thin; it's around about the thickness of an eggshell.

KESTENBAUM: The coating protects the tiles from falling debris. It's hardened by baking the tiles in a big kiln. Wilson presses a button on the oven and a platform inside descends carrying two space shuttle tiles.

It's 2,200 degrees, so hot the tiles glow orange from within like there's a huge firefly inside. He grabs one, no gloves.

You just picked it up.

Mr. WILSON: Yes, you can pick it up very, very delicately by the corners. It's designed to reject the heat rather than absorb it. And as a consequence, the tiles, the edges and the corners cool off very rapidly and you can pick it up 20 seconds after you take it out of the kiln.

KESTENBAUM: The tiles are also big sponges when the waterproofing burns off. Wilson remembers one time it rained after the shuttle landed and heat lamps had to be rigged to dry the tiles out - heat lamps set up, of course, by hand.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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