#TBT: Eva Firmani: Tile Technician who helped astronauts reach the stars

Tile technicians like Eva work kept astronuts safe as they left and re-entered the Earth's atmosphere. 

Name: Eva Firmani

DOB: 7th November 1960

From: Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

Area of work: Tile Technician on the world's first reusable space vehicle – the Space Shuttle

What they did: 

In 1999, at the age of 38, Eva Firmani started work at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida. Eva was a tile technician on the world’s first reusable space vehicle, the Space Shuttle. She remembers: “Sometimes you came in and it was like a regular job. Every once in a while, you had to catch yourself and think, I’m standing on the wing of the Space Shuttle”.

Eva moved to Florida where she met her husband who worked in the space industry. In fact, almost everyone in that part of Florida worked for NASA in one way or another. So, when she couldn’t find work as a teacher, she joined the space race and got a job with United Space Alliance, a subcontractor for NASA charged with maintaining the Space Shuttle.

The Space Shuttle program started life in 1968, but it was not until 1981 that Columbia became the first of five Shuttles that were launched into orbit. Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour – five names that would become etched in history.

After establishing herself at United Space Alliance, Eva became a tile technician working on the Thermal Protection System (TPS) on the outside of the Space Shuttle. On previous space vehicles the TPS had been a sacrificial layer of material which burnt off during re-entry. However, a reusable Space Shuttle required a reusable TPS and so a layer of specially developed heat resistant tiles and other materials was used to protect the spacecraft and its crew. Tile technicians would assess any damage to these tiles then repair or replace them as necessary after each space flight. “The tile technicians were the low man on the totem pole,” Eva said. “I mean, they’d consider us last, even though our jobs were one of the most important, because if there was a breach in the thermal protection system, as there was on Columbia, you lose a Shuttle.”

The Columbia disaster was the result of damage to the TPS on the Shuttle’s wing during lift-off. The damage meant that on February 1, 2003, during re-entry, Columbia disintegrated, killing its crew of seven. Eva remembers the event well. “I was on the landing strip waiting for Columbia to land. We were all outside watching the landing strip waiting to see the shuttle coming out the sky. We heard a lot of radio traffic about high temperature readings in different parts of the shuttle. Then they lost transmission.” When Eva and her colleagues heard what had happened it was traumatic for everyone involved “Everybody was silent. I had worked on Columbia for a long time. Your first instinct is, did I do something? Of course you are thinking about the astronauts. Their lives are in your hands. Your work can be critical.” The accident was not due to anything that Eva, or her fellow technicians, had done or not done.

One year later, with the 20-year-old Shuttles getting more expensive to maintain, the decision was made in 2004 to bring the programme to a close, and with it, Eva’s career as a tile technician. When the last Shuttle flew in 2011, Eva had already taken a new position with Boeing, who had taken over United Space Alliance, for a year.

Eva and her fellow technicians working on the Shuttle played a vital role in making the Space Shuttle programme into an inspirational success story, not to mention keeping the programme running for 15 years longer than originally planned. Eva is clearly proud of her work, saying, “I think that people doing the work were a really big part of the historical event and we get forgotten a lot. I will say that a lot of the astronauts did seem like they appreciated us because they knew that their lives were riding on a lot of our work.”

It is a message she has passed on as advice to her son, who became a pilot in the US navy. “I said, be nice and talk to the people who worked on your airplanes. Be nice to them, because your life is riding on their work.”

Without them we… Eva was a key member of the team who assessed, repaired, and replaced thermal protection tiles on the Space Shuttle after landing. Her work and that of her fellow technicians was a vital contribution to the success of the Space Shuttle Programme and ensured the safe return of many its astronauts. 

To learn more, please visit: Andy Connelly's #technicianjourney Blog


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