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NASA's Cutting Crew
Greg Dorsey and Steve Page stood behind a panel of glass looking over a computer readout. In the next room, a router carved a perfect channel just like the one the one the operators prescribed on the computer.

The two technicians could be mistaken for woodworkers machining elaborate designs into a cabinet or dining table, and that would be partially correct. They are carving elaborate designs.

Steve Page operates a router that cuts foam pieces to match parts. But their chosen medium is a dense foam called minicell, and the delicately formed and carefully cut designs are not for looks. The cutouts will hold equipment vital for space shuttle missions and flights to the International Space Station.

Image right: Steve Page operates a router that cuts shapes in the dense foam. The technicians program the router through several techniques so it will hold equipment safely inside the shuttle and space station. Photo credit: NASA/Steven Siceloff

The piece they are working on this time will cradle a light destined for the space station. Without the right packaging, the light would almost certainly shatter just from the vibration of launch. The foam pieces also keep parts and equipment from floating out of place in microgravity, or perhaps bumping into other parts.

Working in a stark white shop in the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, five United Space Alliance technicians carve more than 100 pieces of foam for each shuttle mission. It can take up to four hours to detail a piece of the material for use.

Greg Dorsey shows a cutout to hold space equipment. Image left: Greg Dorsey shows a piece of packing foam after it has been carved to hold equipment destined for orbit. Photo credit: NASA/Steven Siceloff

"I don't think we've had anything fly that's been damaged on any flight," Dorsey said.

The workers cut holders for equipment flying on several different spacecraft.

"These guys are cutting the foam for (station cargo modules), SpaceHab missions, as well as items that fly on the middeck, that fly on the shuttle," said Lori Hillenbrand, the Lockheed Martin senior systems engineer.

The work often starts on a digitizer, which is connected to a computer. A designer traces the stylus on the digitizer over the part to tell the computer what it looks like. Then the workers can outline a tray for the router to cut that will fit the part perfectly but still allow an astronaut to pull the item out of the tray.

It may seem like a lot of work, but much of the equipment is specialized for use in space or to be used with an experiment that would fail if a critical element came apart in flight.

"There are pieces of hardware that are worth a million dollars or so," Dorsey said.

The three different kinds of foam they use is not like the stuff packing stores place in shipping boxes. For one thing, the foam for space missions doesn't fleck easily. That means pieces of it won't float around inside the station and potentially jam instruments or get inhaled by a crewmember.

Nor will the foam burn, although it will melt. For extra protection, the workers sew Nomex fabric around some of the foam pieces that will stay inside the International Space Station after the orbiter has left.

A foam mock-up of a gyroscope on the ISS. Image left: Technicians cut foam and glued the parts together to make this actual-size model of a control moment gyro used on the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA/Steven Siceloff

The workers also often find themselves making exact replicas of equipment out of foam, including large pieces such as full-size models of the control moment gyros used on the space station.

The models are exact enough to use for tests such as making sure fabric covering designed for the real things will fit right.

The workshop has several such mock-ups on hand that give astronauts a good feel for what they will find once in orbit.

"They're very impressed and very satisfied with the work the team does," Hillenbrand said.

Steven Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center