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The new recruits stitching thermal space blankets

22 January 2018

Three craft-loving women ditched 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.

The Multi-Layer Insulation (MLI) Facility is part of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council’s space programme and is responsible for designing and manufacturing space thermal blankets. These blankets protect space instruments from the extremes of temperature when in space and are vital to keep instruments working correctly.

Making thermal blankets is a very skilled practical task; 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 craftspeople, 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 STFC’s space facility, RAL Space, based in Didcot. Although the job was nothing like she’d ever done before, she knew she had to apply.

Angela said: “I never expected to work anywhere like this. 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.

She said: “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.

MLI Facility Manager Edward Jones said: “We realised we had been coming at the recruitment process as engineers.

“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.

Angela said: “We get given a pattern from the engineers and what they want to achieve. 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, and explained: “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, who said: “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 set to get even 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. Last year, the UK Government announced it would invest £100million in a new state-of-the-art satellite testing facility at RAL Space in the coming years, demonstrating that the UK space sector is going from strength to strength.

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.”

Additional information:

Multi-Layer Insulation (MLI) is thermal insulation composed of multiple layers of thin sheets of aluminium foil and spacer layers. It is one of the main items of the spacecraft thermal design which helps either to keep a satellite cool or keep a warmer temperature. MLI is mostly used on satellites, space instruments and ground based test facilities. RAL Space have designed and manufactured MLI blankets for many important scientific missions including cameras for the International Space Station the MIRI instrument for Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope.

RAL Space
RAL Space is an integral part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council's (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL). RAL Space carries out world-class space research and technology development with involvement in over 210 space missions.

UK space industry
The UK Space industry generates £13.7 billion for the UK economy each year and employs over 38,500 people across the country. The industry is growing at a rate of 6.5% per year and there are ambitions to capture 10% of the £40 billion global space market by 2030 – meaning thousands more jobs.

Last updated: 22 January 2018


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