NASA's workforce is pretty big. It is not the largest by federal government standards (a record held by the Department of Defense, which has over 3.2 million). Even the US Postal Service has 600,000 workers (just under Denver's population). NASA “only” has about 80,000 workers
, split between 20,000 in-house civil service employees, plus another 60,000 contractors. These employees are spread out amongst the ten NASA centers, including Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Many of these workers perform critical tasks to help launch satellites and to maintain the human spaceflight program. Right before the final July 2011 shuttle flight of Atlantis, there were 6,700 people involved with the shuttle program
. You may have heard about some of the celebrated roles needed to keep the shuttles flying, such as those in flight control, but some are more obscure, like the seamstresses.
Yes, seamstresses have been involved in human spaceflight from the very start, when they were hired to help build spacesuits (check out the book
that has recently been published about the history of these efforts). But seamstresses were also involved with the space shuttle program, specifically creating the quilted insulation that covered the exterior of the shuttle. You are probably aware that the space shuttles had ceramic tiles that protected them from burning up upon reentry into the atmosphere. Less known is that each shuttle's thermal protection system also included insulating blankets that covered much of the upper surface of the shuttle, and these blankets were handmade by a team of seamstresses working at Kennedy Space Center.
One of them was Jean Wright, a master seamstress who was the last hired to a team of 15 "Sew Sisters," and who stayed until the end of the shuttle program in 2011. Jean gave a talk about her work at DMNS on March 17. We won't spoil her tale, but if you missed it, you should watch the video below to hear her amazing stories, including the hidden history of seamstresses in aeronautics and aerospace. Also noteworthy is how she was discovered by DMNS volunteers and staff at Kennedy Space Center, who immediately realized that DMNS had to bring her to Colorado to share her experiences with our audiences.
But wow, does she have eye-opening stories, which she tells with a passion and with infectious enthusiasm. She is also extremely knowledgeable about NASA—and not just her own work, but with all of NASA history. We've known some serious NASA buffs and space nuts, but she may outdo all of them with her knowledge about the space agency and everything it has done.
You can hear Jean's talk, “Keeping the Legacy Alive: Piecing Together History” at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSp8gEXjn88