First published on the Technicians Make it Happen website. Below is the full version.
Name: Eva Firmani
DOB: 7th November 1960
Currently living in: Greer, South Carolina
From: Silver Spring, Maryland
Area of work: Tile Technician on the Space Shuttle
Without them we… Eva was a key member of the team who assessed, repaired, and replaced thermal protection tiles on the Space Shuttle after landing. Any mistakes by her or her fellow technicians could have resulted in the loss of a space shuttle and the astronauts on board.
In 1999, at the age of 38, Eva Firmani started work at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida. For many people who, like her, had grown up during the space race, this would have been a dream job. However, it was not a prospect Eva had ever even thought about. “I remember watching it [the moon landings] on the TV.” she said. “I had no real thought that I would ever want to do something like that. This is something that I kind of fell into. But I ended up really liking it and becoming very involved in it.” The role that Eva had fallen into was that of tile technician on the world’s first reusable space vehicle, the Space Shuttle. “Sometimes you came in and it was like a regular job,” she said of the role. “Every once in a while, you had to catch yourself and think, I’m standing on the wing of the Space Shuttle”.
At school Eva was more interested in theatre than space or physics and ended up at the University of Maryland to study for a degree in Secondary Education and Theatre. She had dreams of being a drama teacher, but it was not to be. She ended up moving to Florida where she met her husband who worked in the space industry. In fact, almost everyone in that part of Florida worked for NASA in one way or another. So, when she couldn’t find work as a teacher, she joined the space race and got a job with United Space Alliance, a subcontractor for NASA charged with maintaining the Space Shuttle.
The Space Shuttle program started life in 1968, but it was not until 1981 that Columbia became the first of five Shuttles that were launched into orbit. Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour – five names that would become etched in history. By the time Eva joined the United Space Alliance in 1999, the Shuttle program was well established. She took on a junior role as an orbiter integrity clerk, which entailed keeping a detailed inventory of any maintenance equipment going onto the Shuttle and checking everything as it came back off. Eva laughs, “It seems like a really stupid job, but it’s important.” The job was not only important but highly responsible – anything accidentally left on the Shuttle could end up floating in space, lodging in the shuttle machinery and causing significant problems.
After establishing herself at United Space Alliance, Eva completed a training programme to become a tile technician and eventually became a tile technician working on the Thermal Protection System (TPS) on the outside of the Space Shuttle. The super-structure of the Shuttle was made of aluminium to save on weight. Unfortunately, this material is not capable of surviving the extreme temperatures – up to 1600°C – generated as the Shuttle passes through the Earth’s atmosphere on re-entry. On previous space vehicles the TPS had been a sacrificial layer of material which burnt off during re-entry. However, a reusable Space Shuttle required a reusable TPS and so a layer of specially developed heat resistant tiles and other materials was used to protect the spacecraft and its crew. Tile technicians would assess any damage to these tiles then repair or replace them as necessary after each space flight. “The tile technicians were the low man on the totem pole,” Eva said. “I mean, they’d consider us last, even though our jobs were one of the most important, because if there was a breach in the thermal protection system, as there was on Columbia, you lose a Shuttle.”
The Columbia disaster was the result of damage to the TPS on the Shuttle’s wing during lift-off. The damage meant that on February 1, 2003, during re-entry, Columbia disintegrated, killing its crew of seven. Eva remembers the event well. “I was on the landing strip waiting for Columbia to land. We were all outside watching the landing strip waiting to see the shuttle coming out the sky. We heard a lot of radio traffic about high temperature readings in different parts of the shuttle. Then they lost transmission. Most of the people that were with me that had been there even longer than I had… They knew something was wrong.” When Eva and her colleagues heard what had happened it was traumatic for everyone involved. Eva recalls, “Everybody was silent. I had worked on Columbia for a long time. Your first instinct is, did I do something? Was it something that I did that caused a problem? Of course, you are thinking about the astronauts. Their lives are in your hands. Your work can be critical.” The accident was not due to anything that Eva, or her fellow technicians, had done or not done. However, it highlights how critical the TPS was and the tile technician’s role in maintaining it -no matter their position on the ‘totem pole’.
There were various types of TPE used on the Shuttle. On the hot regions, such as on the wings, they used solid ceramic or carbon tiles. In the regions which would remain cooler during re-entry, such as the cargo bay doors, they used Flexible Insulation Blankets (FIB), a quilted, flexible blanket-like surface insulation. After landing, the Shuttle would be taken to a hanger, where a team of people set about getting it ready for its next flight. Eva worked with a team of technicians primarily on the mid-section of the Space Shuttle. Her focus was on the upper half of the mid-section where the FIB protection was based. “Say an old one [piece of FIB] needed to come off,” she explained. “We’d remove the old one and make a pattern for a new one. Send it to a shop and they’d cut and stitch these insulated blankets. Then they’d send it back to you and you fit it into the space.”
With the 20-year-old Shuttles getting more expensive to maintain, the decision was made in 2004 to bring the programme to a close, and with it, Eva’s career as a tile technician. When the last Shuttle flew in 2011, Eva had already taken a new position with Boeing, who had taken over United Space Alliance, for a year. Unsurprisingly, her role as a quality inspector in commercial aircraft parts manufacture didn’t thrill her in the same way as working in the space programme. “It was not as interesting as working on the Space Shuttle. It just wasn’t the same,” she said. “In fact, it is hard to go to another job after that. Because not only was it that we were working on something that was historical. We had a camaraderie with our fellow workers. We were like family – we would fight, we’d get in arguments about how jobs should be done and all that, but we all had to pull together because we had this important thing to do. It was manned space flight. You really feel that importance of what your job requires.”
Eva and her fellow technicians working on the Shuttle played a vital role in making the Space Shuttle programme into an inspirational success story, not to mention keeping the programme running for 15 years longer than originally planned. Eva is clearly proud of her work, saying, “I think that people doing the work were a really big part of the historical event and we get forgotten a lot. I think it’s a really important thing for people to know that these are the people that did the work, that made it happen. I will say that a lot of the astronauts did seem like they appreciated us because they knew that their lives were riding on a lot of our work.”
It is a message she has passed on as advice to her son, who became a pilot in the US navy. “I said, be nice and talk to the people who worked on your airplanes. Be nice to them, because your life is riding on their work.”
Acknowledgments and further reading
A massive thank you to Eva for agreeing to be interviewed for this piece. It was really great to talk to her about her experiences – there is so much more of our conversation I’d love to have included in this piece if I’d had room. Thank you also to Alex, Eva’s daughter, who put us in touch.
There are some excellent articles about the Shuttle’s thermal protection system. I have selected a few below:
- Chapline, et al., Thermal Protection Systems, Engineering Innovations, p. 182-199
- Oakes, Space Shuttle Ceramic Tiles, depts.washington.edu
- Pirolini, Materials Used in Space Shuttle Thermal Protection Systems, azom.com (2014)
- Rincon, Shuttle’s heat-resistant surfaces, news.bbc.co.uk, (2005)
- Woods, Heated Debates A History of the Development of the Space Shuttle’s Thermal Protection System: 1970-1981, QUEST, 10:3, 39-55, (2003)