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Tap into the experiences of NASA’s technical workforce as they develop missions to explore distant worlds—from the Moon to Mars, from Titan to Psyche. Learn how they advance technology to make aviation on Earth faster, quieter and more fuel efficient. Each biweekly episode celebrates program and project managers, engineers, scientists and thought leaders working on multiple fronts to advance aeronautics and space exploration in a bold new era of discovery. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Wednesdays. 

NASA Technicians Scott Bartram, Eric Bentley, Maria Salinas, and Phil Steele discuss their hands-on work on a variety of projects and technologies.

From laboratories and clean rooms to wind tunnels and launch sites, NASA technicians support numerous work environments and perform a wide variety of technical tasks to help the agency explore some of life’s fundamental mysteries. At NASA facilities across the U.S., technicians provide essential, hands-on support that leads to mission success.

In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:

  • Skilled trades workers’ attention to detail
  • The importance of communication in hands-on technical work
  • Rewarding aspects of working as a NASA technician


Related Resources

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Planetary CubeSats

Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID)

Joint Polar Satellite System-2 (JPSS-2)

NASA Additive Manufacturing Standards Support Human Spaceflight

Diagram: Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS)

NASA Langley Research Center Research Directorate Facilities and Capabilities

Careers at NASA

APPEL Courses:

Team Membership (APPEL-vTM)

Fundamentals of Systems Engineering (APPEL-vFSE)

Creativity and Innovation (APPEL-vC&I)


Scott Bartram Photo Credit: NASA

Scott Bartram
Photo Credit: NASA

Scott Bartram is an Equipment Specialist in the Research Directorate at NASA’s Langley Research Center, providing support such as aeronautics, acoustics, and space lens development to numerous projects. He has a general knowledge of optics, plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and computer operation, and helps researchers accomplish their goals. Bartram, who began his NASA career approximately 35 years ago, was initially hired to develop a new measurement technique for off-body flow field measurements for application to large wind tunnel facilities. He has an Associate of Applied Science in lasers and electro-optics from Texas State Technical Institute.

Eric Bentley Photo Credit: NASA

Eric Bentley
Photo Credit: NASA

Eric Bentley is an Engineering Technician in the Components and Hardware Branch at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Bentley is responsible for creating fabrication drawings for project hardware. He currently supports DragonSQRLi; Capture, Containment and Return System (CCRS); and Autonomous Navigation, Guidance, and Control (AutoNGC). Bentley began supporting NASA in 1990 as a contractor incorporating engineering orders and configuration management and began creating fabrication drawings for project hardware in the Components and Hardware Branch in 1998 before transitioning to his government position in 2010. His training and education include Maryland Drafting Institute and an associate degree in engineering design from Chesapeake College.

Maria Salinas Photo Credit: NASA

Maria Salinas
Photo Credit: NASA

Maria Salinas is an Engineering Technician working for the Contamination Control and Planetary Protection Group in the Systems Integration and Testing Branch at NASA’s Langley Research Center (LaRC). Salinas is responsible for performing visual inspections to look for contaminants on hardware, maintaining the clean tents and cleanrooms on center, and running spectral analysis on samples collected during visual inspections of hardware. She also works as a technician simultaneously in the Thermal Vacuum Lab to assist with environmental testing as well as performing the contamination control duties. Salinas began her NASA career as a Pathways Intern working as a Machinist in training in the LaRC Metals Applications Technology Branch and transitioned to the Apprenticeship Program before becoming an Engineering Technician. She received her Associate of Science degree in mechanical engineering technology with a specialization in mechanical design at Thomas Nelson Community College. She is certified by the U.S. Department of Labor for completion of the apprenticeship for the occupation Mechanical Engineering Technician under the sponsorship of NASA Langley.


Phil Steele Photo Credit: NASA

Phil Steele
Photo Credit: NASA

Phil Steele is an Additive Manufacturing Technician in the Advanced Manufacturing Branch at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, providing contractor support to Materials and Processes, In-Space Manufacturing, Space Launch System Liquid Engines Office, and Exploration Upper Stage. Steele provides support for all phases of polymer additive manufacturing machines processes and materials, which includes providing estimates; creating work orders and scheduling tasks for prototype and flight parts; operating and maintaining two fused deposition modeling and two stereolithography polymer additive manufacturing machines; maintaining material inventory; ordering flight QA certified materials; and providing support as needed for material and process parameter development. He previously worked as a Drafter/CAD operator in the high-volume production manufacturing engineering field and a Process Engineering Technician in materials and processes for the automotive manufacturing industry. Steele has over 30 years’ experience in manufacturing engineering and earned an Associate in Drafting and Design Technology from J. F. Drake State Community and Technical College.


Pam Melroy: To be a technician who works on NASA projects, you need unwavering attention to detail, a dedication to accuracy, and excellent problem-solving skills.

I’m NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy.

As the proud aunt of a welder, I know firsthand how important a skilled technical workforce is for our nation. And at NASA, we depend on top technicians, drafters, welders, and builders to read and interpret complex technical drawings and instructions, to work in a team environment to transform raw materials into spacecraft and successful missions. Aerospace is one of the most demanding of all industries, requiring precision and very tight tolerances.

NASA’s trade and technical professionals are often our unsung heroes, providing crucial support to our missions. And I’m eager to hear more of their stories as this podcast series continues.

Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome back to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.

I’m Deana Nunley.

In this second installment of the three-part NASA Trade and Technical Professionals series, we’re highlighting technical variety in jobs and projects.

We’ll talk with four technicians who work on everything from lasers to contamination control to additive manufacturing.

Thanks to each of you technicians for taking time to share your experiences with us.

We begin with a conversation with Eric Bentley, a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center technician who has supported numerous NASA missions. Eric, what’s your role with NASA?

Eric Bentley: Basically, my title is I’m a mechanical technician. However, I’m a drafter. I’m the guy that makes the drawings that gets sent out to fabricators and we have flight hardware and any type of hardware that you need for your project. That’s what I do.

Host: Have you been with the agency for a while?

Bentley: I’ve actually been at the Greenbelt facility at Goddard Space Flight Center for about 30 years. I was a contractor for a long time. And for the last 13 years, I have been a civil servant.

Host: And I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a typical day, but if there were, what would that be for you?

Bentley: You’re right, there’s no such thing as a typical day. I typically do the same type of work every day. I create drawings or modify drawings, but it all depends on what projects I’m working on. I do mechanical drawings mostly, which packaging. And I also started helping out the electrical side of the house and I do cable drawings and harnesses and things of that nature.

Host: What are some of the changes that you’ve seen over the years that have impacted your work?

Bentley: Well, the biggest thing is I started out on the drafting board. And so obviously, from there, we have CAD and now we do everything in 3D modeling. And then you take the models and convert them over to 2D drawings and you dimension them and detail them. So when they get sent out to a fabricator, they actually manufacture what it is that you need, the piece, that particular part.

Host: Is there a lot of going back and forth to get it right?

Bentley: Well, there shouldn’t be, but there is. So, a lot of it depends on if you’re talking mechanically or electrically. Mechanically, typically, no, because you’re designing in 3D. You have a model and you make sure your model all goes together. You can basically do fit checks and you can check to see to make sure all your parts go together correctly, so all your holes line up.

However, electrically, there’s a lot more information that you need. Like if you’re building the cable, you need to say the connectors on either end and the size of the connectors and the wire, and if it’s twisted pairs. So, there’s a lot more information that goes into it. And it also depends on the experience level of the engineer you’re working with. And that goes for both mechanical engineers and electrical engineers.

Host: Has your job gotten easier or harder with the transitions from what really sounds manual to begin with to digital now?

Bentley: Well, it’s gotten easier only because you can take things and reuse them over and over again and just do some minor modifications. Whereas, previously, when you did things on the board, you had to literally start from scratch. So now, it’s easier to say, ‘Oh, I need to change this, or I need to move this over here.’ You can actually just put a drafting fence is what it’s called, so it’s a box. And then you could say, ‘Copy this and put it over here, or delete this part except for this.’ So, it’s easier to actually do the work. But since it’s easier, you have time to do more of it. So here, I’m a lot busier now than I’ve been in addition, because it’s difficult to find people that have my skill set.

Host: And why is that?

Bentley: Well, I started out doing electrical work and then I transitioned into configuration management. And then from configuration management, I went to work for mechanical engineers. And during that time, I also had somebody say, ‘Hey, I need somebody to do these cable drawings,’ and I volunteered to do it. And then of course, once you’ve started doing things like that, they say, ‘Oh, Eric can do them. He can do them.’ All right. So, everything gets fed my way. So, I’ve been really lucky in that regard because I don’t have blinders on. I look at the big picture and say, ‘If I can help at any way, I’ll do the best I can.’ I’m much more mechanically inclined, I’ve been doing that longer. However, lately, I’ve been doing a lot more electrical drawings. So obviously, I’m learning a lot more as well.

Host: Let’s talk about some of the projects that you’ve supported. Could you share a few memorable stories of what’s happened behind the scenes on different projects?

Bentley: Well, I think for me, the job that I have is I am fortunate enough I have my hands in almost everything that comes through my branch. So, I came over and started working at Goddard for the SMEX program. And within that program, there was SAMPEX Mission, FAST, SWAS, WIRE, TRACE. And then of course, like I moved on to some bigger projects, bigger by I mean physically bigger, but also more money they spent. I worked on PACE, SDO, MMS, Astro-H, LRO, RST, OSAM-1. And I also have the opportunity that I’m working on some of the CubeSats, which are considerably smaller than, these are basically the size of a bread box. So I’ve been fortunate enough to work on very small projects to very large projects. And while the scope of the work, what I’m doing remains the same. Everything has its little intricacies and then you can say, ‘Oh, it’s a little different here. It’s a little different there.’

So that’s always been something that I look forward to because while a lot of the work seems like it’s the same, it’s not, really. And I think, out of all of that, the thing that I remember most is the people. The work stays the same, but the people that you get to work for and work with, it’s been wonderful to watch. People that I’ve worked with at the beginning of my career are now all in positions of authority, and that’s pretty awesome to see how you start as a newbie and then you now you’re somebody that people are reporting to. To me, that’s pretty cool and I got to see them grow up professionally. So that’s been a really inspiring part of my journey.

Host: If you’re hanging out with someone who is somewhat in awe of NASA and just loves to hear about what’s going on in the space program, what are some of the personal stories that you share with them? Some of those things that it’s like, ‘Wow, I remember when this happened.’

Bentley: So, I think that’s a very good question. One of the things I love about working for NASA is that we’re one of the few government agencies that everybody seems to love. I mean, you don’t ever hear anybody badmouthing NASA. It’s because we do cool science. I mean, not only do we do — You look out at the stars, you also have the opportunity that we build satellites that look back at the earth. And for me is when you talk to somebody and I say, ‘Oh, I work for NASA.’ They really say, ‘Oh, that must be so cool.’ And I’m like, ‘It is. It’s probably the greatest job in the world as far as I’m concerned because there’s just so many different things.’ I mean, I worked on SDO and it’s basically looking at the Sun. And I worked on LRO, which is Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is basically looking back at the Moon.

And I have a lot of smaller CubeSats that I’ve been working on that just look at different things. For example, PACE looks back at the oceans and the makeup of the ocean. So everything, it’s kind of the same, but it’s not. So that’s the great thing. I love looking up, but we also need to look back and make sure we’re not destroying our planet. And I think these particular projects, some of them look out at the stars and some of them look back in the Earth. And for me personally, I like the Earth looking back at because that’s where I am and I want to make sure we keep it healthy and we can do whatever we can.

Host: And are there any particular moments where you contributed in a special way to a mission that you felt like, ‘Well, this really made a difference’?

Bentley: Well, I feel like that all the time. I look at it certainly from a team perspective. Without the drawings, they don’t get stuff made, nothing gets fabricated. And then you work on the documents that tell you how to put stuff together, how to test it. It goes into vibration testing, and then it goes in the thermal vacuum chamber. So at each point, there’s the possibility of failure. But you work through it and then you have a product that you hand over to somebody and they bolt it onto the spacecraft and then it goes out and it gets this science and everybody’s just like, ‘OK. We understand how this works now.’ The little part that I play in comparison to some people, it’s a little part. But for me, I also realize that if you don’t have the spoke in the wheel, the wheel wobbles. So, you need to have everybody working together, pushing in the same direction to get to where you want to go.

Host: What do you see as the future of drafting?

Bentley: Well, I think I’m the last guy. We’re starting to do more types of drawings where after you create a part model, you convert it over to a STEP file, and then you send the STEP file to the fabricator. But you still have to inspect it to make sure that the fabricator fabricated it properly and to your specifications. So, while there’s less detail-oriented drawings, you’re still going to need to have some type of paperwork. And as we all know, nobody likes to do the paperwork. So that’s my job.

Host: So, you’re doing that job now. How’s it going to be done in the future if you’re not around?

Bentley: Well, I think with STEP files, you’ll just end up taking those files and sending them to a fabricator. And then all that, once you get all the pieces, you’ll be able to put them together and do a fit check to make sure it goes together the way you want, and that’ll basically be your checks and balances. I mean, I don’t know. I haven’t really looked that far ahead. I’m at towards the end of my career and it’s been a great career and it’s not over yet, just a couple more years, but I don’t see it. I don’t know of anybody else that really does what I do, so I don’t really think about it too much like that. I just think about what’s ahead for me and what I need to do for my project and for Goddard, what’s next.

Host: What’s the best part of your job?

Bentley: The best part of my job is when people ask me what I do, and I tell them where I work. Everybody loves that. I mean, you see little kids wearing NASA, the meatball logo shirts. And I had the opportunity to give some pre-K students NASA swag, and their faces just light up. It’s amazing. And I forward information to friends that I have in the education industry, and they just love, people love when there’s a launch. It’s spectacular when you see them. It really is amazing that, like I said, because people love what we do. And it’s a very, very, very small portion of the overall federal budget. So, we do a whole lot with little.

Host: Maria Salinas began her career at NASA’s Langley Research Center in 2017 as an intern and now works as a NASA Contamination Control and Planetary Protection Technician in the Systems Integration and Test Branch. Maria, what exactly does a NASA contamination control technician do?

Maria Salinas: First, I should probably break down a little bit what contamination is. Contamination is stuff, essentially, that we don’t want getting into the wrong place at the wrong time. With all of the sensitive hardware and stuff, things can naturally affect things to degrade over time because of contamination, whether it’s fingerprints or particles. Anything like that can affect the effectiveness of some of these really important missions. My job mostly is to do a lot of hands-on work.

I do these things called visual inspections, where I take UV and white light and I look for any visual signs of particles or molecular films on these either flight hardware, sometimes it’s ground support equipment, depending on what the project needs and what technology we’re using. My job really requires a lot of attention to detail.

My visual inspections usually last a pretty decent amount of time, just because I’m not only looking for contamination, I’m also looking to see if there’s any mechanical problems with any of the stuff because of the background that I have before I was doing the contamination control stuff. I’m also looking to make sure that all of the stuff is clean and everything looks like it’s supposed to.

I like to ask the projects if there’s anything in particular that I need to be paying attention to like optics or computer boards, depending on what the hardware has, just to make sure that I’m looking at everything that they deem me to to make sure that all of this stuff works at its best ability. Another thing that I have to do is what we call solvent rinses and wipes and I obtain samples. Generally, I’d collect three kinds of samples. There are tape lifts, which is using a tape film and putting it over the object and lifting it up.

And then we take that to our microscope and we look at it to see what it looks like and to see what it might be made of. We also take those samples and we do what is called spectroscopy, which helps us identify what the contamination is, just to make sure that we can report back to the projects, to tell them what stuff that we’re looking at on the hardware, whether it’s NVR or residues or even particles are very important to how the hardware works and stuff. My job is I’m hands-on on the hardware in person doing the visual inspections.

And then after the visual inspections, there’s a lot of lab stuff that we also do in order to get all the information that we can for the contamination that is on that part.

Host: What are your thoughts on how you contribute to NASA missions?

Salinas: The importance of the work that we do is that before you want to send anything into space, you have to do what’s called environmental testing. We’ve got the Thermal Vacuum Lab. We’ve got the EMI Lab. We’ve got the Vibration Lab. Our branch has what’s called contamination control. All of those sections test all of these flight projects, and even research projects we test to make sure that they can survive the different things that they’ll go through. We work with a lot of projects. I mean, I’ve worked with smaller projects like Spider. I’ve worked with things like Clara. I’ve worked with small satellites. I’ve even done a couple bigger projects.

We did a little bit of work with Artemis for the Moon-Mars exploration stuff. Because we work so closely with these projects, it really feels like the core of what NASA does. I’m working on stuff that eventually gets launched into space. I’ve been to a launch place to do some work over there. I’ve just noticed over time that every small, medium, and large part just contributes to all of it together.

I try and remind myself that every second of my visual inspections count, every second of my sample analysis counts. It’s a very high responsibility for all of the attention to detail that I pay to all of these projects. It’s an honor to be held to this responsibility level. It’s scary to be held to this responsibility level. But I think that if you remind yourself every day that this is very important, everyone is responsible for all of this. Even when you’re designing things, there’s a way to design things that are better for keeping contamination down. From every step of the process, from fabrication to the integration of things, everyone’s responsible for keeping this stuff to that high level.

When it comes down to me, and I might be the last person to look at these things, I really want to make sure that my work is as good as I possibly can provide because of the responsibility that I feel that I have to my job, to the branch, to the projects, to NASA in general.

Host: Maria, what’s unique about the work you do?

Salinas: Well, there’s a lot of unique stuff. I can tell you that. I think because of all of the work that we do, there are small things we do, there are big things that we do. I’m looking at stuff that’s so important. I don’t know, I get to be hands-on. All of the knowledge and experience that I’ve had my entirety of the job at NASA really, really comes into play when I’m doing visual inspections and stuff. All the training classes that I’ve ever had helped me visually inspect all of this hardware to make sure that it’s going to work at its best ability.

And then also where I work, I work with technicians, I work with engineers, I work with older people, I work with younger people, I work with men, and I work with women. It’s a very diverse culture as well. Sometimes with some of this science stuff, it’s a little male dominated. Being over here in the branch that I’m in, it blew me out of the water because of all of the people that I work with and all of the unique stuff that I get to do and just all of the things that go on even day to day or month to month are very, it just seems very unique because I get to do everything. Every day is different. You never know what you’re going to expect that day, and I think that’s pretty cool.

Host: What are some of your favorite stories from supporting projects?

Salinas: About a year ago, I was able to go and support a project called LOFTID, and you know NASA loves its acronyms. LOFTID stands for the Low Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator. I was able to go over to Vandenberg Space Force Base to support the work that was being done there for contamination control, which was essentially, like I said before, the visual inspections and the sampling we also did at the launch site. There are some things that affect things like optics and stuff more than others.

JPSS, which was the satellite that we were ride-sharing with on an Atlas V Rocket, was very sensitive to silicones. Now, if you know anything about tape, when you think about tape, you think, ‘OK, it’s sticky, it’s plastic, it’s fine.’ Tape has two kinds of backings. Some tapes are backed by silicone and some tapes are backed by acrylic. Well, we had to the entire time, whether it was there and even when we were doing integration work back at NASA Langley, we were having to be very adamant about using specific tapes.

Kapton tape, which we use a lot of the times, is either backed by two things, silicone or acrylic. I was having to go and curtail all of the silicone back taping that I could find to make sure that it wasn’t even in the area, even close to any of this stuff. Because at the end of the day, we had to — the last inspection and sampling, we did a sampling. And then ULA, they also did a sampling to see if there was any silicone that came back.

Because of all of the fussing that I had to do about the silicone-backed tape, I don’t think I’ll ever look at tapes the same way. Even when I’m taping something at home or at somewhere else, I’m just like, I wonder what the backing of this tape is. It was a very just strange instance that’s life-changing.

Host: Yeah. It makes an impression, doesn’t it?

Salinas: Oh yeah, for sure. For sure. Definitely.

Host: Do you enjoy your work?

Salinas: Absolutely. Absolutely is the shortest answer that I can give you. All of the time and effort. Obviously being at work, sometimes it can feel like work. But honestly, because of the high responsibility and the pressure that I put on myself and all of the other stuff that goes on, it makes the day feel less like work and more like cool things that you get to do every day. I’ve got a great team. All of the project people that I work with are so dedicated. I mean, the people in my branch are dedicated.

The project people that we work with are very dedicated. It’s cool to see so many people from different backgrounds and different jobs and all of the diversity to go into and all of the small things to the largest things that go into these projects to make all of this stuff important. It’s really the best stuff. I mean, even if I’m taking three hours to do a visual inspection, every second of that I’m enjoying because I get to pull from my experience. I get to see cool things.

I get to work with projects that are very important to NASA in general and to human race and all of that stuff too. When all is said and done, when I feel like I’m ready to retire eventually from NASA in a long, long, long time, this will probably be one of the most rewarding jobs that I’ve ever had. What I’ve always thought NASA is in general, all the stuff that NASA has felt like to me, I think this job entails. And that’s really cool.

Host: That really is cool. What fascinates or surprises your friends and family when you talk about your job with them?

Salinas: I think the amount of things that we work on, especially the stuff that we know is going in space. For example, the LOFTID stuff, when we were all able to see and I was able to tell my family, ‘Here’s the launch date. Here’s what they’re going to broadcast and stuff,’ I had friends in different places and I had family in different places get to be able to watch those broadcasts and think, ‘Hey, my friend, my daughter, my cousin, whatever their relation is to me, they actually were able to work on this stuff.’

I think that the broad scope of all the stuff that we get to do. Even when I tell my family the tape stories, they just look at me. They just look, they’re just like, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect that.’ You know what I mean?

Host: Right, yeah.

Salinas: Some of the little nuances of the things that I do are like, ‘Oh, I never thought about that.’ When I told people that I was going to work at NASA, everyone was so excited and I was excited. It just made me more excited. All of the stuff that I get to talk about when I do get to talk about stuff, everyone just thinks it’s pretty cool. Now, I got to say, I do get a lot of questions about aliens, but I think that’s kind of a NASA thing that people like to ask you anyway.

Host: And I’m sure you have all the answers for them, right?

Salinas: Oh yeah, of course.

Host: Of course. Did you see yourself growing up and becoming a NASA employee?

Salinas: Honestly, no. NASA Langley shares a hanger with the Air Force base, like on the direct other side is the Air Force base. My dad worked in the Air Force. I used to see this hanger even when I was little. When we would go see dad at work, I would see that NASA hanger. Even as a kid, as an adult, I would’ve never thought that I would have the opportunity to work at NASA. I think every day I try and remind myself, you did it. This is cool stuff. This is important. It was surprising and it surprises me now.

I think the first day and even now, it’s very exciting. I couldn’t ask for anything any better.

Host: The next technician in the spotlight is Phil Steele, who has more than 30 years’ experience in manufacturing engineering. Phil, what’s your role with NASA?

Phil Steele: I’m an additive manufacturing technician under contract at Marshall Space Flight Center.

Host: Could you tell us about your work with additive manufacturing, and describe what you do on the job?

Steele: I operate the machines, obviously, but I started in the additive manufacturing when it was still referred to as rapid prototyping. And this technology is interesting that it was originally developed using polymers to create quick turnaround, low cost, fit and function type prototype parts in the early design stages, when several iterations and design changes were expected to occur. And one of the benefits of rapid prototyping, or additive manufacturing, was its ability to build geometries that traditional manufacturing methods could not produce. Or they had to produce it in multiple parts and fasten them together, or weld them together. So, the technology began to expand and toward the end use parts, particularly with metals. And as well as advanced polymers, which I primarily work with, the engineering thermoplastics.

Host: What would you say are some of the most interesting changes you’ve seen as additive manufacturing technologies and processes have evolved?

Steele: Well, as I was saying, it began as a prototyping process. And there were several early processes like SLA, or stereolithography, or SLS, which is selective laser centering of powdered nylons. And fused deposition modeling, which may be the most popular, which uses polymer filaments in its extrusion process. Even though there were several engineering grade thermoplastics being used for some end use parts, it’s still primarily used for prototype parts. Then came the metals. Originally, they were concentrating on the powder bed process, which is similar to the SLS, but it uses the metal powders rather than a nylon powder. And some of these processes are known as direct metal laser centering, or DLMS. And selective laser melting, or SLM. And there’ve been many more process and material advancements made, not only using the metal powders, but also metal wire. And hybrid processes where they combine additive with the subtractive manufacturing, where the post-processing of machining is done in process, in the same machine.

But end use parts doesn’t just mean metal parts though. There have been many advancements on the polymer side as well, such as we mentioned earlier, the fused filament processes. There have been many advances made in material capabilities. Extruding high-performance engineering polymers, such as the ULTEMS, the PEEK-based materials. Also chopped fiber reinforced filaments, carbon fiberglass, or in Kevlar continuous fibers. And then also metal and polymer mixture of a bound metal powder deposition, or BMD. Where the metal powders are bound in a polymer, which after printing requires a de-binding and centering process. Which is like metal injection molding, which has been around for quite some time. So, all of those are interesting to me, and right now that’s where most of my attention lies in these high-performance engineering polymers.

Host: What have you seen in terms of the speed with which these processes work, and the size of the equipment that you use?

Steele: In the powder bed processes with the metals, they’ve gained a lot more speed by adding multiple lasers. You had dual lasers, and then quad lasers, where you have multiple lasers working in the same powder bed at the same time. Now it can obviously produce it faster as one laser works on one part of the part, or parts, while the other one works on the other. But also, you can program it to have different laser powers and travel speeds for producing different parts of the part. Like internal features versus external, where you would need a little more strength versus you want a rapid fill. That’s just one. There’s other areas, and that is the one that sticks out the most to me right now.

Host: And then the equipment, has it gotten smaller over the years?

Steele: The fused deposition process, or the filament process, has gotten smaller for quite some time. Because they have them scaled down to desktop versions that are fairly inexpensive. And a lot of people have them at their home for hobbies and making polymer parts at home.

Host: What do you like most about your job as a NASA technician?

Steele: The advancements that we’ve just been talking about, and it’s continuously developing new materials and process improvements. And so, what is most rewarding is the most challenging, and that’s to keep up with the new developments, and materials and processes.

Host: Let’s talk more about that. What are some of the challenges you face in the job? And how do you and the team overcome challenges and obstacles?

Steele: Actually one challenge that I’m currently working with is with the filament processes. 3D printing with a carbon fiber reinforced PEEK material for GFCs thermoplastic development for exploration applications, or TDEA team. And this material itself is a challenge to work with, but with the carbon fiber reinforcement additive, that adds a little bit more challenge in printing. PEEK, this material is a semi crystalline material that when it’s cold printed, and I mean when it’s in an environment less than 133 degrees C, it requires a post-process of heat treating. Which is like a kneeling heat treatment for metals. And that’s to achieve the crystallization from an amorphous print. But if you have the capabilities, which I do, with an enclosed heated build chamber and extruders that can reach high temperatures, as I stated earlier, above the 133 degree Celsius environment. It would be an in situ crystallization where the PEEK material with the carbon fiber actually is crystallized in process, or semi-crystallized.

And the extrusion temperatures are pretty high too at a range of 365°C to 440°C. These higher temperatures do present complications. And what I’m doing right now is trying to optimize the parameters to achieve a premium part that is in situ crystallized, so it doesn’t require the post-process. The heat treated.

Host: What’s it like for you to get to do hands-on work that contributes to NASA missions?

Steele: Well, it’s very satisfying and humbling to see the parts that we’ve produced be launched and used in space. For example, the Space Station ECLSS system, we’ve produced several parts and most of the flight parts we’ve produced has been for the ECLSS systems.

Host: Do you have a favorite story about your work with NASA?

Steele: Well, I have several. But to name just one, we mentioned the ECLSS systems on the Space Station. When the ECLSS BPA had developed an odor issue in the Space Station. And what the BPA is, is a brine processor assembly. And that works in conjunction with the urine processor assembly. And for example, when the urine processor processes the urine mixture, it’s pretreated with a concentrated acid to prevent microbial growth. And each time the urine mixture is distilled into potable water, a waste liquid is left behind, and that’s called brine. So, the brine processor assembly was developed to convert this brine into potable water as well. And like I said, had developed an odor issue. And Marshall assembled a brine processor assembly odor mitigation team to resolve it. And the ISS crew had commented that the odor of the brine processor is spreading and getting more noticeable.

So, they were tasked with a need for a quick turnaround solution to help mitigate the problem that was currently at hand, and have it ready to fly on the next cargo resupply mission. So, they came to us, and we quickly printed several prototype parts for them to work on a design of an exhaust hose adapter. And then we printed the final design in the ULTEM material. And it was designed, built, and shipped in less than two weeks, which I was told that’s pretty much unheard of. But given the circumstances. And after that, the team designed and built, tested, certified, and we built some of the prototype parts for this. It was a new filtration system, and like I said, they designed it, built it, test it, certified it, and shipped it four days ahead of schedule, which again was another milestone achievement. And we actually, so I was told, received kudos from the Space Station crew. And rightfully so, given their circumstances.

Host: That’s fascinating. Any more stories you could share with us?

Steele: Well, there was one I did actually two different times about a year apart in the last couple of years. And this deals with another benefit of the additive manufacturing for custom applications. Johnson Space Center had come to us with the need of printing some large parts, and they were Boeing Starliner seat parts. And like I said, they’re a custom application here, because they actually scanned the test subjects, the astronauts, to custom fit the seat parts to them. Like, I was doing the shoulder bolsters that were custom fit to their shoulders. And they were conducting impact testing with them. So that shows another benefit and application of additive manufacturing in conjunction with reverse engineering where they can actually scan parts and recreate the parts in CAD models and print them without having to retool, or anything that would require that extensive process in traditional manufacturing processes.

Host: The final segment of today’s episode is a conversation with technician Scott Bartram. Scott, could you tell us about your career path, and what you’re currently working on?

Scott Bartram: I have been at NASA Langley for about 35 years, and I started in industry working for a company called Hughes Aircraft. I have a AS degree, Associate of Science in lasers and electro-optics, that I got from a community college in Texas, and that got me a job with Hughes Aircraft building laser range finders and target designators in California. I worked there for seven years and then saw an advertisement for the job with NASA, and I’ve always loved research, so I decided to apply for that and was given the opportunity to interview and come out, and that just worked out really good.

It was interesting to come to Langley, come to NASA, because they have an apprentice program and the experience that they needed was not really available at the time. They needed seven years of experience in laser velocimetry, which was a very new technology at the time, and it just happens to be similar to what I was doing. So, I got that job, but most of the people I work with had gone through an apprentice program which had coordinated with the community college. So, they had taken classes in the basic electronic and mechanical kind of work, but then they had classes in the evenings that helped really refine and focus their energies into aeronautics and aerosciences that NASA needed at the time, how to work in the wind tunnels, what boundary layers are, what off-body flow field type things are, which are just the terminology and the knowledge that they really needed to know in order to work with the scientists out here at Langley.

And that was a pretty big deal for them, and so I was kind of playing catch up, not having any of that aerodynamics kind of background in my career, but they gave me a chance and I was able to start working with a system called Particle Imaging Velocimetry. We were taking photographs of dust in wind tunnels, and so I like to kind of compare this with, as a kid, when you would smack the couch in the living room in front of the big window and the sunlight’s coming through and you can see all these particles, dust particles, sorry mom, they’d just be spinning around and making vortexes and it’s kind of fun just to watch them move around. Well, that’s particles. You’re looking at particles that are following the airflow in the poof that you made on the couch.

So, what they had me doing was photographing that using lasers and very high-speed camera techniques and then taking that image into a computer and then connecting all of the dots. Basically, it’s a stroboscopic technique, so you fire the laser once, capture the image in one position, do it a second time, the particle has moved and you connect those dots and that’s how the whole system works. Pretty straightforward. I’ve been doing that for 35 years and it is just a wonderful technique. It gets a lot of really good data, because there’s nothing in the flow to disturb the air. Most of the time, if you’re going to make a measurement, you’ve got to put a probe or something in there to see what’s going on, but with this technique, you’re just putting dust, and the dust is going to follow the air and it works out really good.

So, that got me started at NASA, and then I got to move over and follow some of the researchers. I worked well with a few folks and ended up doing acoustics. I helped with large-field acoustic arrays and setting up learning how the sound waves move and refract and change and how to make proper measurements of them, and it kind of blended in with a lot of the optical stuff that I was doing, because lasers and optics, light is also a sinusoid, it’s a wave, so it’s just a different frequency. So, I could apply some of what I knew in optics into acoustics, and that kind of helped me out working with Langley, who was also co-working with Boeing and some of the big manufacturers to try to come up with technology that will help airplanes fly quieter and faster and smoother and more efficiently. These days, it’s more efficient, trying to save the amount of gas that you’re using.

It was nice to see the actual application of that as well. Flying home 10 years after the fact, I saw things that I had worked on actually on an airplane, and that was kind of cool, to actually see that. So, that’s kind of how I got started in it, and NASA is just a very flexible work environment, so if you can do something and do it well, you can step into that position in many cases. That was my experience going from optics to acoustics. So, right now, I’m still doing the particle imaging, making measurements in wind tunnels as well as I’ve just started getting into developing space optics, which are very, very light, but efficient optical systems. Instead of having a piece of glass that weighs a thousand pounds, we are able to make lenses that weigh half an ounce and do the same thing that that thousand pound piece of glass did.

I’m also supporting a clean room, which does submicron deposition and very, very small things. So, I’ve got the opportunity to work on big optics and small optics and just get a really good feel for a lot of different science things. It’s just a very interesting place to work.

Host: What are some of the more interesting things you’ve learned along the way?

Bartram: Some of the more interesting things have been acoustic particle imaging, actually photographing sound waves as they move in a chamber. That was really cool. We were able to map out a pressure wave using lasers, and that was a very interesting test. It’s kind of one of the things where the researchers say, ‘This is what we want to do,’ and in the back of my mind I say, ‘Yeah, that’s not going to work,’ but sure enough, it works. It’s like, ‘That is very cool. I didn’t think it would happen, but it really worked out well.’

Host: Yeah, that’s cool. How does communication factor into your work?

Bartram: That is probably the thing that I’ve found the most interesting over my career, has been how important the communication is. Being able to look at a situation and describe it to someone so that they really understand what it means and what they mean when they’re asking to do something. So, someone that has an idea, they’ve got it in their mind, and they’re working to let you know what that idea is, so you can’t just listen to them and say ‘yes and OK.’ You have to have feedback.

So, communication is a two-way street and it’s very important, and I can really see it, how by saying what you think and actually communicating, it will help clarify their world as well as yours. They have ideas, but they need to be able to verbalize it, and sometimes they’ve got it in math and the math works, but we can’t really talk it out, and that can be a challenge. But eventually everybody comes together and if you’ve got the right idea and you can get your point across, it gets listened to and that really can help everybody else that’s trying to communicate with the same issues.

Host: What would you say makes your work unique?

Bartram: The uniqueness of this job comes from the variability of what needs to get done. I come in in the morning and I need to do computer drawings, I need to do mechanical work. I’ve got access to a Bridgeport and an engine lathe, so I cut metal and make shapes. I can solder circuits together and do wiring. I hook up plumbing, I do pressurized systems for controlling spin coating things. I might end up working in the clean room. The clean room is a Class 100, so it’s ultra-clean. You have to put a bunny suit on. I might have to go in there, or I may get the opportunity I should say, to go in and work with equipment that lays down atomic layers of different chemicals in particular patterns. That’s kind of the systems that make computer chips and make things that we use every day.

Right now, there currently happens to be a huge construction boom in that technology, and we/I am having trouble finding really ultra-clean tubing. Which is kind of odd. Who really needs to buy ultra-clean tubing? But you need it in some of these systems that are using micron layers. Micron being, well, nanometer, which is the size of a wavelength of light, you have to have very precise control over that stuff, so ultra-clean is a very important part of it. But the point is that it’s always something different, or it always can be something that is different. There’s just so many things that need to get done, and if you have the time to get involved, then you’re encouraged to get involved. My management has been just absolutely awesome, and so when there’s something that comes up and if I can help, they give me the go ahead. They give me the freedom to get involved and make sure that the job is getting done, or communicate to somebody that may need to be involved.

So, I get to see a lot of different parts of NASA, what different people are working on, and that is really cool. It makes it very unique. When I was working in industry, it was the same place every day. I had my boss literally standing in the door, looking at his clock, looking at his watch when we came through that particular clean room. It was a production job. It was a good job, don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed working there, but this is inspiring. Having to use my brain every day and try to communicate my thoughts and my understanding to researchers who have it in a different language. They have it in math, they can speak in math, they can do all this stuff which is just fascinating to me, the PhDs and the researchers that are just so smart, and I get to be a part of it, and that just makes me feel really good. It’s a very, very nice place to work, and being able to use my head is really, really a blessing. I really love it.

Host: Are there any on-the-job stories that stand out for you?

Bartram: I guess the story of an acoustic array that I was allowed to design is kind of interesting. I was going to meetings that were designed to help one of our larger facilities make more accurate acoustic measurements, and the early meetings, they were trying to decide on how to make a very large acoustic array. It needed to be eight feet in diameter and it had to be lightweight and it had to have all these very, very specific things about it. And in the meetings I made, well, I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but I spoke up and said, ‘Well, why don’t we do this and why don’t we do that? You could take two pieces of fiberglass honeycomb and cross them and lay them.’

And pretty soon, I was doing the drawings and contacting the contractors and basically doing the engineering on putting that together and getting it built and working with the purchasing people. Man, so, I got to see all aspects of it, and for a person with an A.S. degree to be able to step up to that, it was quite a nice opportunity. It was fun. It’s nice to see that array get used. It still gets used out here, and they call me every time, unfortunately, to make sure it goes back in place right. So, that’s kind of a nice place to be.

Host: Yeah, for sure. Scott, what kind of challenges have you faced as a technician?

Bartram: Well, the biggest challenges are really hitting that mantra of getting the job done. You have to work with everybody in order to make that happen, and we all need to work together. People can get really focused on their job and what they need to do, and we kind of tend to lose track sometimes that we really do need to work together. So, keeping everybody on the same page, and the challenges of not getting frustrated.

Sometimes to get the job done, you need to be creative in the way you get it done. Like when I hired on, we were not allowed to purchase vacuum cleaners, and I was specifically told that is not a research piece of equipment, and so I couldn’t order a vacuum cleaner. So, since I was working with particles, instead of ordering a vacuum cleaner, I ordered a particle collection system, and I was able to get a shop vac. And now we can buy vacuum cleaners, it’s just one of those things, and there’s a lot of little things when you’re working in the government that are frustrating and you just got to take a deep breath and say, ‘OK, well, let’s look at it and see how we can work around it. How can we get this job done?’ Because the end goal is getting to where we need to be, and doing it safely, of course.

Host: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Bartram: I think getting the feeling that I’m contributing, that I’m really helping people. I think that it makes me feel good to be involved with a group and to be able to contribute and help, and that is the main thing. I mean, just the feeling of being a part and being listened to and working with a group of really sharp people trying to make the world a better place. We’re trying to make things fly faster and quieter and cheaper and saving gas. So, I feel like that is a big part of it. I feel good about working with people. It just feels good to be involved.

Host: Many thanks to Scott, Phil, Maria, and Eric for joining us on the podcast. You’ll find their bios and links to topics discussed during our conversations at along with a show transcript.

The next episode in this three-part series features technicians who made significant hands-on contributions to NASA’s successful IXPE mission. We look forward to sharing more stories from NASA trade and technical professionals and reconnecting with you for the final installment in this series.

As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.