The folks working at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston shared engaging insights during the IFAI Expo Advanced Textiles Conference reception on Tuesday. Here’s a sampling:
“You don’t have to be an aerospace engineer to work for NASA,” said Mallory Jennings, a Johnson Space Center materials engineer working on spacesuit assembly. She added that there’s “nothing to complain about working on spacesuits, habitats and environments.” No wonder they seemed to be a happy bunch.
IFAI Expo’s Advanced Textiles opening presentation on “NASA’s Wish List” was presented by Evelyn Orndoff. Originally from France and still bearing an accent, Orndoff graduated from Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan. A couple of generations later, Mallory Jennings (busy on Tuesday setting up the NASA booth on the floor show) graduated from Wichita State University. According to the school’s website, its aerospace engineering department is the sixth oldest in the country.
The current astronaut spacesuit is a 40-year-old design, according to Mallory Jennings. “The challenge we are running into is that a lot of our suppliers have stopped making the materials or have changed the formula. If a company changes the way they’re making a fiber or decides not to make it because NASA is the only one using it, we need to find new materials.” Jennings proposes that companies may decide not to continue making a product used in spacesuits because, “We are a demanding product customer with very little product need. We may buy a couple of gloves a year. … I think that is challenging for our vendors — and we realize that.” On the positive side, she says, “It allows us to look at some pretty cutting-edge things we can implement in our current spacesuit and test for our future spacesuit.”
Another great aspect of working for NASA is getting to consult with a Hollywood production, including the just-released The Martian, starring Matt Damon. The assistant director, lead costume designer, author of the book on which the movie is based, and some of the actors visited the Johnson Space Center before shooting the movie. Unfortunately, Matt Damon was not among them. “Trust me, I would have done my hair,” Mallory Jennings quips. “But Jessica Chastain came. I was impressed that she was so interested in her role that she would do the research to learn about NASA.” Jennings has not yet seen the movie, but did read Andy Weir’s book. “We are nerdy people [at NASA], so we get into it when people are interested in space.”
NASA Advanced Spacesuit Engineer Benjamin Peters did see The Martian when it opened in theaters. “The Mars suit is totally unrealistic — for now,” he said. Peters explained, when asked, that the “advanced” in his title refers to the spacesuit, rather than his ranking as a NASA engineer. He is quite young, however, so perhaps one day his title will read Advanced Spacesuit Advanced Engineer.