Next week, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission.
Of course, preparation for that started years earlier with ideas, drawings and calculations on paper. A handful of talented artists and technicians turned those ideas into exact scale replicas of the rockets and capsules that would launch humans on their greatest adventure.
The exhibit and model makers of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville are still telling the story of NASA in a very unique, hands-on way.
Inside a building on Redstone Arsenal is a Santa’s workshop of sorts that few people have ever seen. Millions have seen what they make at the exhibit and model shop, but few have seen how this creative crew shrinks a nearly 400-foot rocket into a desktop display or discovered why what they do is so important to NASA’s mission.
The manager of exhibits and artifacts, Todd Cannon, says an 11-member team of model makers, graphic designers and technicians can create anything from delicate mural-size wall coverings to sturdy hands-on exhibits and scale models.
"We’re a visual society,” he said. "So, having a model to demonstrate all of these different designs really ignites the imagination of the person you’re talking to.”
Inspiration is their stock in trade, firing up the next generation by creating traveling exhibits, museum displays, artwork and models.
“This is a great way for people to understand when we’re talking about a rocket that’s going to go to the moon, what does that look like?” Cannon said.
Trevor Bennett’s been building models professionally there for three years. He worked on a 150-scale model of the SLS. The detail is incredible and much of it is still done by hand.
“The eye wants to go to all the details and the excitement begins to build,” Bennett said. "As a modeler, we try to aim for accuracy that engineers notice.”
A modeler, Aaron Stanfield, is in his eleventh year there. Building models was a hobby until he heard about this place.
“I couldn’t believe this job existed,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. Somebody paid somebody to build models for NASA? So I had to have the job.”
He’s working on a scale model of the engine test stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. After visiting the site, he uploaded photos and blueprints that he’s using to recreate the structure in plywood and plastic.
“Some of these models have been out here fifty years, and I hope my models are out here fifty years. We’ll see," Stanfield said.
Shari White manages this team. She describes their mission in just a few words.
“We help tell the story of NASA,” she said.
Designers and technicians can take a simple sketch, transfer it to a computer and create a hand-built exhibit.
“We’re the actual hands-on. You know, I can talk to you all day long and say ‘I build rockets, and I built this and I did that,’ but until you see it, you don’t know that that’s what’s actually going on,” White said.
A design artist, Rob Williams, says it’s rewarding work, showing people what NASA is doing.
“From paper to computer screen to in a lobby or in a school, or even in a museum, they get to see our work,” he said.
In addition to museums, their work is on display at trade shows, in office building lobbies, presidential boardrooms and executive offices.
Earlier this year, the Marshall Space Flight Center's director, Jody Singer, used a model in her office to show how the SLS works. Wernher von Braun was especially fond of these intricate reproductions.
“He had in his office at Marshall, you can even see in some of these pictures, there were always models of rockets behind his desk,” his daughter, Margrit von Braun, said.
She remembers her father’s office crammed with them.
"And one of them, I think they actually had a cutaway in the ceiling to show the Saturn V because it was too tall to fit in the regular room," she said.
Von Braun believed models helped engage the public in the space program, and he made sure he had plenty of them.
“Dr. von Braun was one of the ones who actually helped focus on getting the model shop started here,” Trevor Bennett said.
The processes may have changed with liquid PVC, 3D printers and computer-aided routers now working alongside old-school lathes and milling machines, but the mission of the team remains the same.
“We show them what the agency is doing, where it’s going, what we’re going to do, what we’re doing now, and I think that’s very important,” Rob Williams said.
Some of the new processes they're using out there, specialized software and 3D printing, are actually laying the groundwork for techniques that could one day be used to make tools and replacement parts aboard a remote space station on the moon or Mars.