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Center Snapshot: Sam James
Sam James. Image above: Sam James works in Langley's Test Article Development Section, fabricating scaled research models. Photo credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Denise Lineberry

Sam James is a model who builds models.

According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, a model is "a usually miniature representation of something" or "one who is employed to display clothes or other merchandise."

When it comes to describing James' careers, both of those definitions are limiting.

As a mechanical engineering technician at NASA Langley, he fabricates scale research models for testing. Most of his fabrications include model aircraft, but James enjoys the challenge of other projects, such as completing a prototype of an Aerostar fiberglass model van for the Ford Company that was used for aerodynamic research.

His Langley career began 24 years ago, when he was hired into the apprentice program. Since, James said, he has "worked in conjunction with science and engineering professionals to support the design, development and testing of varied and complex NASA projects."

The interaction with people from those projects is what he most enjoys. Also, seeing the completed model or the final product.

About 20 years ago, an aerospace engineer presented James with a pencil sketch of a prototype loom, or weaving apparatus. His challenge was giving it the capability to weave curved, graphite frames to reduce the weight of airplanes.

Three years after NASA hired James, he became the co-inventor of a "prototype loom," which can weave composite curved frame preforms, made out of graphite fibers.

"One of the reasons for using this graphite material is to reduce the weight of airplanes by getting rid of all the rivets on the wings and fuselage," he said. "With less need for maintenance, and a weight reduction of about 28 percent, the lighter aircraft will give better fuel economy, reducing the cost of air travel."

After one year of modifications to the hand-operated loom, James got it to work using some of his own designs. "Once this concept was proven, a power automated loom for the fabrication on structural test articles was modified, incorporating the new concepts," he said.

James then became involved with high profile projects such as the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Blended Wing Body (BWB).

His models are more than just "miniature representations." He is creating prototypes for real-world applications that reach into air and space.

When he isn’t building models, he can often be found working professionally as a model.

For 14 years, James has worked part-time for Wihelmina Models in Richmond for stock photography that is used for magazines, websites, brochures, newspapers and other media.

There is more to James than meets the eye.

He doesn't just "display clothes or other merchandise," per the dictionary definition. He also acted in "The New Detectives," "The FBI Files" and "The Interpol Investigates."

A few of his worlds collided when he did an episode about Orville and Wilbur Wright entitled, "The Case of the Wright Invention," for "The NASA SCI-Files."

James was born and raised in Elizabeth City, N.C., only 66 miles from Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers took their first flight.

During his childhood in North Carolina, he watched his father build houses and establish his own business with a seventh-grade education. That influence gave James a desire to become mechanically inclined.

At a career day event when he was in the seventh grade, that desire was further encouraged.

"My guidance counselor advised me to pursue mechanical technology, based on the information I gave her," James said. "She devised a high school curriculum for me with all the higher math, science and technical courses that were required to prepare me for college."

A former Elizabeth City State University linebacker voted "Mr. Sophomore," he grew up with eight sisters and three brothers. "I am the eighth child, born on November 8, so my nickname was 'Crazy 8,' " he said.

But "Crazy 8" was proudly traded for "Dad" when he welcomed his two children into the world: Gabriel, 8, and Senya, 5.

James reflects on how far he has come, but he doesn't stop there.

"As I look to the future, I plan to continue to be a team player, and to support new technologies that help strengthen our nation's aerospace industry," he said.

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