Space Crafts
22 Jan 2018
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Three craft-loving women swapped their sewing patterns and glue guns to take on an out-of-this-world job opportunity, and are now helping to make thermal blankets for satellites.

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​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Angela Ashill and Kim Morgan precisely cut the MLI material in the clean room.

Credit: STFC RAL Space
The Multi-Layer Ins​ulation​ (MLI) Facility within the RAL Space Thermal Engineering Group designs and manufactures space thermal blankets. These blankets protect space i​nstruments from the extremes of temperature when in space and are vital to keep instruments working correctly.

Making thermal blankets is a very skilled practical tas​​​k; technicians need to be able to precisely measure, cut and in some cases, sew the blankets. This requires nimble-fingers and the skill to think three dimensionally. Many of these skills are used by crafts people, so the job advert called for people with a love of sewing and crafting.

Angela Ashill was looking for a change of career and happened to see an advert for a skilled craftsperson at RAL Space. Although the job was nothing like she'd ever done before, she knew she had to apply.

“I never expected to work anywhere like this" Angela said, “I had been running a card-making business at home when I saw the advert for the MLI position at RAL Space. I was intrigued – at the very least I thought it would be interesting to go to the interview. But my craft business and my previous career as a radiographer gave me the confidence to apply.

Claire Morgan, like many mums, struggled to balance working against the costs of childcare after the birth of her third child. She became an OFSTED registered childminder and learned to sew and bake for family and friends.

“After my kids went to school I started thinking about doing something else but it needed to fit round them. A friend of mine who already worked for RAL Space in engineering showed me the job advert. She suggested I give it a go."

The third new team member, Kim Morgan, has always had an interest in sewing and science – but never imagined she would be sewing thermal blankets in a laboratory.

“When I saw the job advert on the RAL Space website it looked like my ideal job because it involved making stuff" said Kim. “The interview seemed very technical but when they took us down to the cleanroom and made a piece of blanket I thought, if this is what the job is about, it's what I want to do."

While RAL Space has had a growing number of customers for MLI expertise, recruiting the right staff to keep up with demand had been an ongoing issue until Angela, Claire and Kim joined Steven Cross in the team. 

​“We realised we had been coming at the recruitment process as engineers;" said Edward Jones, MLI Facility manager. He explained, “the issue was that we were thinking about the skills we had, rather than those actually needed for the role. So the recruitment team re-phrased the advert, took out much of the technical jargon and refocused on the craft skills needed for the job"

It's clear that the MLI team have quickly got to grips with the technical nature of the job and take pride in their work.

“We get given a pattern from the engineers and what they want to achieve," explained Angela, “We need to work out the stages of putting everything together. There really isn't as much sewing as I had thought, much more cutting the pattern and sticking with special tape."

With every kilogram launched into space costing several thousand pounds, everything has to be very precise and everything has to work perfectly when it gets into orbit.

Claire described the process of keeping everything clean and correct, “We weigh everything and cut accurately to make sure we don't add excess weight. There can't be any stray fibres or bubbles in the tape because the trapped air would expand and it would come apart when the spacecraft is in a vacuum."

Kim agreed with the need for care and attention “Each blanket is unique so you can't rush it. If you rush it you'll make mistakes. I'm a very visual person, I like to see something being made from start to finish. It is definitely inspiring that they go into space."

And there are even some skills that transfer the other way according to Claire, 'Working in a cleanroom, with lots of visitors coming through RAL Space, I've become a lot cleaner and tidier with my work at home and much more precise making decorations for cakes."

RAL Space is just getting busier with around 500 blankets to make for external projects over the next 2 to 3 years and growing interest from beyond the space sector.

Edward said: “We are delighted with Kim, Claire and Angela, they had just the skills we needed and are a brilliant addition to our team. With new skills that wouldn't be available otherwise and a different way of looking at the task. We need more people like this taking up jobs in the UK space industry."

Search and apply for STFC RAL Space careers.​


For more information please contact, RAL Space Enquiries​​​

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