Toolmakers Keep Shuttle Flying
Marion Sees asks more from his desk than simple office work such as holding paper or keeping his computer off the floor. Sees desk also operates as a workbench and laboratory.
That's because Sees' nickname is "MacGyver," and just like the inventive guru from the adventure television series, Sees gets a lot out of all the hardware around him.
His ingenuity is in service of the Space Shuttle Program as a technical staff worker at United Space Alliance. Working in the company's facility near Port Canaveral, he is part of the sizeable work force that prepares and repairs shuttle components for flight.
An Allen wrench and small socket, for example, becomes the starting point for a wrench that can reach inside the control box for the space shuttle's cooling system.
Without it, a multitude of carefully placed circuit boards would have to be taken out of the box, the box rebuilt and the whole thing recertified. Such steps can keep a vital shuttle component out of service for months.
For Sees, part of the reward is in the opportunity to do exacting work on a crucial system.
"I enjoy working with my hands whenever, but the criticality of everything is motivating," he said.
An old speedometer cable and even dental floss have been incorporated into tools and procedures to ready shuttle parts for flight.
"We get involved in stuff every day that we can't do with existing equipment," he said. "I seldom know ahead of time that I've got a problem until I get into it," he said. "I really approach everything with, 'Well, I'll try and accomplish what you need.' Essentially, it really is thinking outside the box."
The result can be the mixed picture of a 52-pound bolt that will hold the orbiter to the external tank resting on a set of wheels usually seen on the bottom of a rolling toolbox.
The wheels, attached to a couple pieces of wood, do just as they are supposed to. They let technician Rita Roberts work on the bolt under a microscope and turn it just a touch to line everything up.
Sees' inventiveness is not unusual around the facility. Kent Towne shares part of the tool duties, and technicians in other sections apply unique skills to the parts themselves.
For Jim Bonck, that means patching items such as the Ku-band antenna's carbon fiber dish. NASA has only five of the critical antennas in its inventory - one for each shuttle and two spares.
"We find a way to fix it," he said.
Bonck was able to find a piece of the material and cut it to an exact match to make a patch.
Sees did not begin his space career as a tool master. Instead, he worked as a technical writer in 1966 for the Apollo program. He took on his current post in 1987 and has been working on shuttle components ever since.
"It's very interesting work and never a dull moment," he said.
Sees said he has designed or built "hundreds and hundreds" of unique tools, enough to fill a catalog of his own.
Sees can't recall a situation that he couldn't devise a tool for. But there was a rotational hand controller for the orbiter simulator in Houston that tested him. The device is a joystick identical to the control stick astronauts use to fly the shuttles. Most of its systems are tucked tightly inside a small box beneath the joystick.
The challenge was to get around the insides and reach small screws so the stick could be reset without taking the whole thing apart.
"I failed at first," Sees said. "I worked at it for quite a while."
The answer was the old speedometer cable, one built decades ago when the link to the speedometer was a mechanical cable that would turn inside a twisting cable. Sees fitted the cable with a screwdriver tip at one end topped off with a turning device at the other. He wrapped the whole thing with Teflon tape to keep from scratching the inside of the controller.
"You've got to be inventive," he said.
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center