Meet a 'Spacecraft Dressmaker'
by Staff Writers
Pasadena CA (JPL) Dec 23, 2016
Lien Pham sometimes thinks of herself as a "spacecraft dressmaker." She's been making thermal blankets at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, for 16 years. Just as clothing can be sewn too tight or too loose, thermal blankets - the glinting material each spacecraft is wrapped in to regulate its temperature - have to be cut to form. A thermal blanket has to provide just the right amount of heat - not too much and not too little - for the spacecraft to operate correctly.
Pham is a member of Flight Technicians Services, a group at JPL that contributes to all stages of spacecraft assembly. Her particular team, which designs and fabricates the protective thermal blankets, is called the shield shop.
At JPL, a place known for complex engineering, Pham has a different background: she began her career as a seamstress after her family immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam. Her experience behind a sewing machine has informed how she makes thermal blankets.
We sat down to talk with Pham about her life and her work at JPL.
How did you start your career?
When I first came to the U.S., my family settled in Los Angeles, and I found a job making lingerie for Olga. That was the only job I could get with my skills and limited English language ability. I made only $2.10 an hour.
To find a better job, I decided to learn a new skill. I attended a trade school in the San Fernando Valley [an area of Los Angeles] at night. They had basic courses in electronic assembly, which trained me in soldering and cabling.
In the 1980s, the aerospace industry in Southern California was booming. I found jobs at two big companies, Data Metrics and Litton, Inc., doing cabling for terrestrial vehicles and space satellites.
Spacecraft electronics are unique - they're not like what you find at an electronics store at a mall. It takes a lot of skill to connect all the cables.
How did you find your way to JPL?
In 2000, my friend Mary Reave, a cabling engineer I worked with, told me they were hiring in the shield shop. She said, 'You should try it because you know how to sew.'
Although I loved sewing and had made some of my kids' clothes, I had never worked with thermal blankets. I told Mark Duran, my mentor at JPL, "I've never done it. But if you're willing to train me, I'm willing to try." I didn't know it would be something I'd enjoy and work at for 16 years.
What kind of materials go into a thermal blanket?
We also use gold Kapton, which is good for conducting electricity. There's a black material called carbon field Kapton. That's for a charged environment, with a lot of electricity. It dissipates the charge.
What's the toughest material to work with?
What kind of tools do you use?
What do you enjoy about this work?
On the Mars Science Laboratory, I was one of the last people to touch the spacecraft before launch. I was one of the last to touch the Curiosity rover that it carried to Mars. We had to install the last thermal blanket, called the Windbreaker, before sending the mission off to Mars.
Do you still sew clothing for yourself?
Any advice for someone who is interested in space and JPL, but doesn't necessarily have a science or engineering background?
Work hard and keep an open mind. It's never too late to learn and take classes. There are a lot of people at JPL who didn't start in science or engineering, but almost all of them have the drive to learn new skills or search for training.
Space Technology News - Applications and Research
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