Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Space Tailors Sew a Fine Seam. TECHNOLOGY: ORBITER INSULATION. Stitches and Knots Must Be Perfect for Thermal Coverings Used on the Space Shuttle

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Space Tailors Sew a Fine Seam. TECHNOLOGY: ORBITER INSULATION. Stitches and Knots Must Be Perfect for Thermal Coverings Used on the Space Shuttle

Article excerpt

NEEDLES. Straight pins. Thread. Sewing machines. Seam rippers. You'd expect to see all these in a tailor's shop. What are they doing in a space shuttle factory?

Such sewing tools are used by thermal protection system mechanics at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to make heat-resistant flexible insulation blankets for space shuttle orbiters. The mechanics tailor the blankets from fiberglass cloth or metal-coated mylar. They work from multi-page patterns, often stitching by hand to make coverings of all shapes and sizes that fit precisely into pre-measured spaces on the fuselage or in the payload bay of each orbiter.

Few of the mechanics have professional garmentmaking experience, but many are women who enjoy sewing as a hobby. For most, the similarities between sewing at home and sewing at work stop with the needles and thread: A missed stitch or a crooked seam in your hand- made shirt may be no big deal, but on the space shuttle it could be disastrous. The blankets help keep an orbiter from melting as it reenters earth's atmosphere after a trip in space.

That's why the blankets must be sewn precisely. Sewing for the space shuttle is not easy. No Simplicity tissue-paper patterns here, says technician David Sheets.

"The drawing itself is only three pages long," Mr. Sheets says, fingering a blanket blueprint as he counts. "Then you've got 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, nine, 10, 14 pages of engineering changes." Sheets and his co-workers must make plastic patterns from the blueprints supplied by their employer, Rockwell International.

Learning to read the blueprints is as difficult as sewing the blankets, says Sheets. "For me, it took about three or four years to really, completely understand them. And I still see stuff all the time that I don't know."

For more than an hour, Linda Wirtzberger has been following a blueprint that tells her how many hand stitches to make on a gap- filler about the size of an open wallet. She wears gloves and a white cotton smock to protect the heat-cleaned and waterproofed material from oil in her hands.

"Everything is written in our blueprints as to how we do it. All the stitches have to be a certain dimension," says Ms. …

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