Skip to main content

Looking behind the scenes at NASA

  • Author:
  • Updated:

While astronaut John Herrington is certainly the most visible American Indian in the space program he isn't the only one. There are many space program workers from a variety of backgrounds.

Martha Pessaro has been working on the space shuttle since 1976 when she was hired by United Space Boosters Inc. (USBI) then a brand-new company. USBI is responsible for the shuttle's twin solid rocket boosters (SRBs), with the exception of the actual rocket. USBI handles the electronics, the nozzles, and the parachutes which slow the boosters down before they hit the ocean and makes the SRBs reusable which in theory reduces the cost of operating the shuttle.

"I got right in on the ground floor. We had a lot of work to do," Pessaro said. To save money, buildings, launch pads and other facilities left over from the Apollo moon program were modified for the space shuttle. Most of those facilities were 'mothballed' when the Apollo program was completed. "Everything was a ghost town out here. Like if they had shut the door and left," she said.

Pessaro first worked as a draftsperson, drawing blueprints for converting Apollo-era facilities for the solid rocket boosters. "It was a blast, kind of stepping into the Titanic and bringing it up to the pace of a [new] cruise ship," she said.

Pessaro has also held jobs in engineering, production, test operations, and worked on a proposal to upgrade the system which steers the boosters during their two minutes of flight. Two years ago she was transferred to the parachute facility which maintains the parachutes for the solid boosters as well as the drag chute which helps slow the shuttle down after landing. The contract also includes fabricating soft goods - things like custom-fitted weather protective covers and plastic curtains.

Each SRB has three main parachutes plus smaller 'pilot' and 'drogue' chutes which are used to stabilize the booster as it falls. Specially equipped ships retrieve the booster out of the ocean and drag it back to Cape Canaveral. The parachutes are washed, inspected for damage, repaired if necessary, and reused up to five times.

Pessaro is one quarter Micmac on her mother's side. She said her Native upbringing is her way of life.

"That's the way I live. Aside from doing that I'm very involved in environmental causes throughout the county. Currently I am the president of the Friends of Enchanted Forest (a natural preserve open to the public located close to the space center). Now we're in the process of maintaining stewardship of the land. I'm a woman's traditional dancer. It's a way of life. It's something if you don't do - it hurts."

She's actively involved with local pow wows as well as Native American activities at the Kennedy Space Center. Currently there are about 40 Natives working at for the space program in Florida, down from a high of 75 due to retirement and attrition.

Pessaro is partially responsible for singer and educator Buffy Sainte-Marie's involvement with the space program. The singer was interested in science education and the space program when the two met at Eckerd College "Discover Native America" program in St. Petersburg, Fla. about five years ago.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

"I went over to Eckerd College and sat in on her class, she gave a little seminar. She made a big deal about somebody [herself] from NASA being there." Pessaro says she got to drive Buffy Sainte-Marie and her manager around noting, "It was just the coolest thing, I had never been with somebody I admired that much."

When NASA's equal opportunity and education divisions decided to make Herrington's spaceflight last year high profile, Pessaro encouraged NASA to invite Buffy Sainte-Marie to the event.

"Knowing she was coming back last year (for the STS-113 launch) was a very big deal. I wish I had more time to show her more of our side of Florida and the (Kennedy) space center." Pessaro had arranged for a VIP tour of the space center for Buffy Sainte-Marie and her party but the clearance did not come through in time.

Another American Indian who works at the parachute facility is Deborah Coombs, Lakota Oglala Sioux. Coombs has worked there for four years, manufacturing parachute components and other cloth products. One of her projects was a set of clear curtains used to prevent dust from entering the shuttle's cargo bay while it's in the hangar.

Before working for the space program she did custom sewing - furniture and upholstery. For her, transitioning to the space program meant learning a lot about her craft. "I learned a great deal about the strength of the webbing and thread and materials. They study everything intensely; you don't just pick something up and sew it."

For example, a particular strap may be sewn in place by a row of stitches designed to rip apart under strain. But the spacing and strength of the stitches has to be very consistent to ensure that it rips apart under the right amount of stress.

"The tolerances can be very tight on the things we make. It's not like a hard surface; the fabric tends to move on you. It doesn't bother me at all - I like to get the tolerances right on."

Coombs' parents both worked in aerospace, her father was an illustration engineer and her mother was an office worker for Boeing.

The first time Coombs got to see a shuttle landing up close was STS-113, Herrington's mission. And just after the main gear hit the runway the pilots deployed a drag chute which was used to slow the shuttle down.

"It was my first time to be at the landing strip and see a shuttle come in. That was fun, not only for me but to see the families of the astronauts and the friends who are close to them personally and enjoy [it] in their eyes. It was really exciting and nice to see," Coombs said.