We hope that you are all busy working on your project entries for the #sewoutofthisworld challenge. There are just two weeks to go until May The Fourth (a.k.a Star Wars Day) and the culmination of the challenge…. eek!

What is Sew Out Of This World? It is a sewing community challenge organised by Sewloco. There are three separate missions to choose between. Find out more.

You may be suprised to learn that our #sewoutofthisworld sewing challenge is not the first time the worlds of sewing & space have collided. In fact – sewing always has been, and continues to be, a very important aspect of human space travel. Intrigued? Read on to find out more…

 

The sewists behind the spacecraft.

 
Without it’s seamstresses, many of NASA’s key missions would never have left the ground. There would have been no small step for man, and indeed no giant leap for mankind. From the Apollo spacesuits to the Mars Rovers, seamstresses behind the scenes have stitched vital spaceflight components throughout space history.
 
In this post, we share the stories of Jean Wright & Lien Pham – tailors to the stars (quite literally!) Both women developed a love of sewing from a young age, and each ended up working as a seamstress for NASA.
 

Their destination was the same; their journeys couldn’t have been more different – but their stories are equally inspiring. Both women prove that it is possible to reach for the stars – and succeed – with some skill, some determination, and a huge amount of hard work.

Lien’s Story

Lien has spent 16 years working as a seamstress in NASA’s thermal blanketing team, creating thermal blankets – an essential element for any spacecraft leaving earth.

Her first project was the Cassini Mission – a spacecraft that travelled to Saturn cloaked in the finest gold insulation to increase the crafts durability over its 19-year journey. We cant help but wonder if any of our makes would last as long (we doubt it!)

Lien Pham [left] and Richard Frisbee after adding thermal blanketing to a spacecraft. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Lien grew up in Vietnam, and her family fled the country as refugees in the 1970s. Finding herself in the US and needing to make enough money to support six siblings – she bought a sewing machine and began to make and sell clothes from her home.

“We did dresses, blouses, shirts, and other things. We got paid maybe 50 cents per garment,” she says. 

To make more money for her family, she decided to learn a new skill. She enrolled on a basic course teaching electronic assembly – which trained her in soldering and cabling. To fund her education, she also worked part-time sewing lingerie for Olga – the only job she could get with her skills and limited English.

Her electronics education meant she could get a job as a cabler at NASA which she did for three years. When a vacancy came up in the thermal blanketing team she decided to apply.

She had always loved sewing, and had made clothes for her children – but had never sewn anything like the work in the shield shop demanded. She was offered the job and trained in the specialist sewing techniques required. Lien loved the work so much she continued to do the job for sixteen years thereafter!

Jean’s Story

Unlike Lien, Jean always knew she wanted to “someday… be out there working for NASA.”  Ever since the age of 13, when she saw Neil Armstrong take those first historic steps in space history, she knew she wanted to be a part of it all.

Jean was taught to sew as a child by her neighbour, Mrs Hansford, and she began her journey making her own clothes. She hoped that one day she could combine her two passions: sewing and space.

“I knew we had seamstresses that sewed spacesuits and I wanted to get involved in doing something with that,” she explains.

It took her more than three decades, but Jean eventually achieved her goal at age 49, when she was hired to work as a seamstress for NASA’s space shuttle program. Wright would go on to work on the Endeavour, Atlantis, and Discovery – hand sewing thermal protection between the gaps in the shuttle tiles.

Side view of Discovery thermal blankets. Photo courtesy of NASA.

“I would go on the computer and study everything I could about thermal protection on the off chance, if by some miracle, I got a chance to work there, I wouldn’t sound foolish during my interview.” she says.

Now retired, Jean looks back on her career with pride. The story of how Jean landed her dream job at NASA is an incredible tale of perseverance. Not everyone has the patience and drive to follow a dream for more than three decades. 

So, what exactly is this thermal blanketing lark – and why is it important?

Thermal blankets are the shiny material that each spacecraft is wrapped in to regulate its temperature. Just as clothing can be sewn too tight or too loose, thermal blankets need to be cut to fit the spacecraft perfectly. A thermal blanket has to provide just the right amount of heat — not too much, and not too little — for the spacecraft to operate correctly.

Materials & Textiles
A thermal blanket is made from multiple layers of textile. For the outermost surface, Kapton film or Beta cloth is used – these materials resist temperature change. There is a special gold fabric which is good for conducting electricity, and another black material which is used for a charged environment (areas where there is alot of electricity) to dissipate the charge.

Different materials used in thermal blankets. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The thermal blanketing team carefully stitch together over 20 individual layers of fabric – some just 1/1000th of an inch thick! It’s all tailored and handmade to a specific spacecraft – like the finest suit!

The sky is the limit.

For these women, their work is a dream come true.

“I would look up at the sky when I was little, and I thought it would be nice to touch one of those stars. But then I came here [NASA] and got to build something that would go there. Never in my imagination could I have believed that.”

Hopefully you have found these stories as inspiring as we have. Whether it is your career or your next sewing project – always remember to reach for the stars guys!

Dont forget – post your entries to ‘Sew Out Of This World’ on social media by 4th May 2018 to be in with a chance of winning a £50 voucher. More details can be found over here. Good luck everyone!

Sources:
‘Meet A Spacecraft Dressmaker’ | NASA.
‘Seamstress to the (literal) stars | SLACK

‘100 Women: The Women Who Sew For NASA’ | BBC

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