When we think of NASA, we generally imagine white men in space suits, flying rocket ships, and super-geniuses sitting at computers, typing in code. While all of these things may comprise a crucial part of NASA’s make-up, there are also many individuals who get overlooked that are greatly important to the space exploration process.
One aspect that is often ignored are the seamstresses, also known as the spacecraft dressmakers, involved in creating the crucial suits and pieces for survival. These dressmakers put together the Apollo spacesuits, Mars rovers, and other vital components in order for safe spaceflight. The people in this department are often women because they are better with their hands when it comes to small details, like stitching.
Pham was born in Vietnam, but she and her family had to flee to the U.S. in the late 1970s after the fall of Saigon. Her family was persecuted against for being Roman Catholic in the Communist country. At just 20 years old, she and her six siblings had to scramble to find work in order to support themselves. The family bought two sewing machines, and from there, they began selling clothes from their home in Los Angeles.
“We did dresses, blouses, shirts, and other things. We got paid maybe 50 cents per garment,” she tells BBC 100 Women.
She then found herself working a day job at a lingerie company, making $2.10 an hour. This was the only job she could get with her limited English skills. As she continued her work, she also went to an electrical engineering class once a week. Engineering was a flourishing trade in California, and at the same time, NASA was hiring.
Pham’s friend and mentor at the time encouraged her to apply for the job and began on the cabling team for the Cassini mission to Saturn. This mission went to Saturn in a golden insulation, which she helped to manufacture, for a 19-year journey.
Since her first mission, Pham has been making thermal blankets at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California for 16 years. The material used for the blankets is wrapped into the spacecraft to regulate its temperature. It provides the perfect amount of heat – not too much and not too little in order for the spacecraft to operate properly, so her job is incredibly important and necessary for everything to function.
Pham comments on her job with NASA, “I would look up at the sky when I was little, and I thought it would be nice to touch one of those stars. But then I came here and got to build something that would go there. Never in my imagination could I have believed that.”
Next time someone says NASA, hopefully Lien Pham will come to your mind, as well as the other incredible women essential to making space exploration possible.
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