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Back in Business
The steady hum of oversized sewing machines is finally returning to the building where a team of dedicated employees pieces together the space shuttle's protective skin.

A sewing machine inside the refurbished TPSFOn Sept. 4, 2004, Hurricane Frances struck NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. As the wind whipped around and rain fell in drenching sheets, several facilities sustained varying degrees of damage. But the storm dealt an especially heavy blow to the Thermal Protection System Facility.

Image to left: One of the blanket sewing machines used on the Thermal Protection System has been returned to the second floor of the TPS facility, where soft material is processed. Image credit: NASA/KSC

The shuttle's thermal protection system comprises heat-resistant tiles, gap fillers and insulating blankets. This complex network protects each orbiter from the intense heat of launch and reentry, as well as the extreme cold of space. These delicate, life-saving components are manufactured and repaired inside the two-story, 44,000-square-foot building.

Tiles and related raw materials are made on the facility's ground level, which experienced water intrusion during the storm. Although some of the offices flooded, tile machining, coating and firing equipment weren't harmed and manufacturing operations continued. But on the second floor, where the exterior and interior thermal blankets and gap fillers are manufactured, damage was extensive. The rain poured in after 65 percent of the roof was blown away by high winds, rendering the entire level uninhabitable.

With the first return-to-flight mission approaching, there was no time to lose. Vital equipment, including the specialized sewing machines, was quickly relocated to the Reusable Launch Vehicle hangar at the nearby Shuttle Landing Facility. Inside, normal work continued, with no impact to the launch date.

Part of the facility's roof is missing after Hurricane Frances in 2004.Image to right: The massive Vehicle Assembly Building is visible through the missing roof of the Thermal Protection System Facility following Hurricane Frances in 2004.
Image credit: NASA/KSC

On Nov. 19, 2005, more than a year after the storm struck, employees worked together to return all the equipment -- along with personnel necessities such as furniture, computers and telephones -- back to the Thermal Protection System Facility's second floor, as well as the Materials Service Center on the first floor.

Moving back was a huge, carefully choreographed undertaking, according to United Space Alliance employee Martin Wilson, the facility's manager. Huge rooms that sat empty less than a week ago had to be filled and organized.

"It went remarkably smoothly," Wilson says. "We knew moving back would be a lot simpler than moving out. Still, it was about 40 to 50 tons of equipment, furniture and racks. But everyone had an independent role; everyone showed up and we just had a great day."

He's quick to point out that with everything back in place, work has already resumed in the refurbished facility.

"In fact, we're shipping parts this afternoon."

Anna Heiney
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center