Space work suits him just fine
What: Spacesuit technician
Hometown: Born in Seattle, raised in Eastern Washington
Currently lives: Newcastle
Family: Wife Charlotte, two sons, one daughter, four grandchildren
College: Pasco, Wash.
Military: Four years in the Air Force
Career: Cape Kennedy, Florida, 1965; Johnson Space Center in Houston, 1967; NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, 1989.
They say that space is the final frontier, but for Jerry James it’s been a winding road. From Cape Kennedy in Florida to Johnson Space Center in Houston to the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, James has spent a career working with NASA. He’s met astronauts, owned his own space suit and has made items for the Russian space station MIR and the Space Shuttle’s Neurolab.
We caught up with James recently and asked him about the challenges and rewards of a life spent on the cutting edge of science and technology.
How did you begin designing flight suits in the Air Force?
“Then they asked for volunteers for ‘physiological training’ which they said was hazardous. I was gung ho and young and didn’t know any better. I started fitting pilots into pressure suits for use in altitude chambers. When I got out of the Air Force I was looking for work and I read a want ad that said Cape Kennedy was looking for people who have worked in altitude chambers. I was hired over the phone right away. This was 1965. Then the guys in the space suit lab, the David Clark Company, talked me into coming to work for them.”
How much difference is there in working with space suits?
“A lot. In the Air Force they were early partial pressure suits, they had tubes running up and down the arms and the legs. They were kind of emergency, get-me-down suits, used in U2s because they didn’t have much room. With Gemini, mobility became the big buzzword in space suits. But Gemini suits were very warm. Apollo suits had liquid cool garments where water would flow through tubes.”
You work with patterns, fabrics, tailoring … any sewing experience in your background?
“They sent me to school in Worcester, Mass., but before that I had no experience. When I got to Houston in 1967, the Apollo project started. Litton industries got a prototype contract to build an advanced lunar suit. They needed a mannequin so I was the dummy and got my own personal space suit.”
Who are some of the astronauts you have worked with?
“The three killed in the 1967 launch pad fire, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee; Jim Lovell, Ken Mattingly, Buzz Aldrin. I like to say I went out to dinner with the second man on the moon but there were about 30 other people too.”
Have you had a chance to do any simulated underwater microgravity training?
“When I was at Ames, we designed and built a hard suit. It was all metal, weighed about 150 pounds. You couldn’t walk. The only way you could test it was in water. I wore the suit under water. It was a real kick, it was really fun.”
What has been your favorite stop along the way?
“At Cape Kennedy I was able to work on Gemini and see the flights and know the guys who were flying in them. In Houston you didn’t see the flights but you got into the working of the suits. But the real challenge is the prototypes and the research and development. You have to use your brains a little more.”
Where did you watch space flights from?
“At Cape, we’d get as close as we could to the launch area. Those things are powerful. They would just ‘pop!’ And those were the small ones; the Saturn V hadn’t come out yet.”
What are some of the challenges you face when designing space suits?
“Mobility and weight were always a big factor. In space, weight is not a concern but it is when it comes to launch. The hardest things to make are the gloves because it takes the hands to do the work. You’ve got three, sometimes four layers of fabric and they’re thick and you might have to turn a little screw but you can’t feel it very good.”
You said in an earlier interview to “have respect for everyone’s contribution.” Did you find your input was considered when you were just starting out?
“It was, but it’s kind of funny. I laugh about when I was young, I would suggest something and everybody would listen I guess, but as I get older they listen more because ‘Jerry’s been at it for a lot of years.’”
Has this field of work fully challenged your creativity?
“Yes it has. Most of the time, I can figure something out. A couple of times I had someone else help me because it was just overwhelming. But R&D is challenging and it’s exciting because you don’t have to build the same thing every time. I like that I am just one of so many talented people in the space program and the byproducts that have come from the space program are amazing.”
What has been your most exciting time working for NASA?
“It’s been awfully rewarding. I think wearing the suit built for me, to go out with it on and demonstrate it knowing I had so much to do with it. Also, there is an award you get nominated for, I am really proud of this. It’s called a ‘Silver Snoopy’ and I ended up getting it. It’s just a tie tack pin but it flew in space and they fly an astronaut out to present it to you. But I feel like a little bit of a braggart. It’s a team effort. Many, many people work a lot of hard jobs to pull these things off.”
What advice would you give kids considering science as a career?
“I’ve talked to kids in schools and I tell them to take classes in science and math if you want to be an astronaut. Those are the two main things to dwell on. I also like to tell the kids that everybody can’t be a chief, there are a lot of Indians out there doing just as important and just as exciting work that have rewarding, good-paying jobs.”