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Meet: Jerry James

Spacesuit Technician
NASA Ames Research Center

photo of jerry james with space suits


What I do:

On any shuttle flight there is a lot of equipment that needs to be stowed, so I design and fabricate stowage bags. My company title is engineer, but I don't have a formal, four-year engineering education. I started with the job title "spacesuit technician" and now I have the title "associate engineer". Still, I think I'd rather be called a spacesuit technician because that is what I like doing.

I learned the tricks of the trade while on the job. I had to educate myself all about space suit fabrics, how to stitch them together, how to cement together coated fabrics, etc. in order to make useful items for spaceflight. I've learned how to make patterns and much like dressmaking, I can tailor space suits. You learn how to work with different fabrics and use different assembly techniques in this career. Velcro is very useful, for example. Anything the crew is using in space will float away so I need to make sure there is some way to stick things together. NASA uses velcro a lot in space craft equipment.

james with space suit My Career Journey

I started out as a spacesuit technician. I worked in the Air Force designing flight suits for pilots and for use in altitude chambers. After I left the military, the Gemini program had begun and I was asked to work on Gemini spacesuits in Cape Kennedy, Florida. My first employer is the same company that develops flight suits for the shuttle now. They have been building flight suits for over 35 years. They sent me to their own school to teach me how to sew and bond fabrics. That is where I learned the skills that I have been using in preparing the Neurolab flight items. After Florida I moved to Houston and continued doing suit work at Johnson Space Center. I then had a job opportunity to come out to the west coast and do research and development on spacesuits. I think creative people like research and development because it is more fun. You are paid to think, to create, to use your brain and come up with new, neat ideas. That's how I got into research and development.

An interesting aside is that the company that first built Apollo space suits was owned by Playtex, a girdle company. Designing and building spacesuits required a lot of the same skills and knowledge as manufacturing girdles.

When I started out, there weren't many aerospace engineers (we called them "rocket scientists"). Staff engineers were learning "the nuts and bolts way" from the crew chiefs, and by doing the hands-on work. Some of these early learners later wrote books on the subject and the formal "manned space flight" engineering education evolved from that.

Likes/Dislikes about career

A big positive aspect of this job is the pride associated with working on a flight mission. I have items flying on the Russian Mir space station. When Neurolab launches, the crew will be using things that I made. It is very satisfying. Also satisfying is the sense of team pride that is a part of mission preparation. It doesn't matter if I did it or if I'm part of the team that did it. In this business teamwork is everything. No one can do it on their own. The military was very good for instilling that sense of team pride -- the first thing you learn in the military is that you have to work as a team. We hear that word all the time in Neurolab and NASA - we are a strong team, a winning team.

There are not many negatives about working in this business. Money and budgets are something we all have to worry about, but those are worries with any job. Sometimes I think that not very many people are as fortunate as I am to be working on something so interesting. I look around and see other jobs at NASA that I don't find so interesting. But fortunately the people who do those jobs are just as interested in them as I am in my job. There are some brilliant people here and NASA is lucky to have them.

Preparation for Career

From the time I was young I loved airplanes. I built model airplanes. I read books on anything related to airplanes. In those days when you got out of high school, you had two choices: the military, or college. I decided I was going to fulfill my military obligation first. I joined the Air Force because I liked airplanes. That's where I started working in altitude chambers because the Air Force was training pilots for the dangers of high altitude flying. It was a good route for me. I think I gathered some good skills in the military. There are "Indians" and there are "chiefs" - and you need to know that there are a lot of good jobs for the Indians, too. There are trade schools for young people who might not be inclined to go to college. The military provides a host of values, lessons, and job skills that will prove useful throughout your life. You can do a lot of useful things without a college degree that are just as important and just as needed. You are not a failure if you don't go to college. I think I was an Indian when I was growing up. Still, the fastest and surest way to an exciting, well-paying job is to keep going to school.

Advice

School is where we are educated formally, but I think reading is the best way to learn. Reading and exploring science are fun; learning doesn't have to be work. For me it was models, I loved building models. I started buying model kits and learning how to fly them. I learned how they're built, how the parts fit and work together, why they need to be the way they are. Then I began to make my own without a kit. That's the creative side of it. After you know how things work, you can start to play with things and change them a little, to see what can and can't be changed and why. You get to try new things. That's where I am in my career now, I get to exercise my creativity. Stowage containers, for example: people used to think everything had to be rigid and tough. But now we look at it differently and realize there are many ways to solve a problem.

My advice is to get out there and do things, try things. You can read things in a book, but you have to be able to apply it. Be a "hands-on" type of person. I have worked with some people that are absolutely brilliant, but when it came to using their hands, they were very unskilled. That inexperience will limit you. Over the years a lot of young engineers have come to work with me. I kid them and I say, "welcome to the real world." You see, there is the "book" way of doing things and there is the real world way of doing things, and sometimes they differ quite a bit. You have to have guidance from the books while you're learning but there's no substitute for hands-on experience.

Another thing is that you can't learn by talking, you learn by listening. There are people that do a lot of talking but they're not learning much while they talk. You can learn a lot by listening to other people. Have respect for everyone's contributions. It doesn't matter what a person's title is, or if they even have a title, they are all part of the team and they are there for a reason. Their knowledge is valuable and they can give you that knowledge, but not if you are talking.

Influences

I probably should be able to name some important influences on my career, but manned space flight has proved to be so interesting to me that it was self-motivating. In the early days, I admired the X-series experimental airplanes, and Chuck Yeager and the like. They were definitely my heroes. My interests evolved from air flight to space flight. I have been fortunate to work with some of the original astronauts. I admire all those people; they each had a great job! I am lucky to be able to work on the same things that they do. I hope that everyone can end up with a job that they enjoy doing. Unfortunately a lot of people don't have a job they enjoy, they're into it for money. I think maybe younger people are smarter than people of my generation, they are starting to say, "Well, I might not make quite as much money, but I think I'd rather do this...." and I think that is important. When it is fun to come to work you do more, you feel better. Your enthusiasm is important and will get you ahead. It motivates you and motivates others, too.

Personal Information

I like scuba diving and some of the best diving is in Monterey Bay (about one hour south of NASA Ames Research Center). The water is cold but you get to get used to that. With the right gear it's not bad. I had a custom wetsuit made so I never get cold. I dove a couple of times in the service in the Northwest under the ice. I think I must have been crazy, but it's a big sport up there. I've gone diving at the Cape before and I've been diving here in California with Marilyn Vasques from NASA Ames. She's a real tiger out there.

Diving has an interesting connection to the space program because when you are under, it's a bit like you're floating around in space. JSC Houston has water tanks and that's where they do a lot of simulated microgravity astronaut training. They do entire training procedures under water.


 
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