Huntsville-Madison Maker Space Creates Parts for International Space Station Project

This spring, the Huntsville–Madison County Public Library took the term “Maker space” to a different level—more specifically, out of this world—when an unmanned spacecraft flew parts of a project created at its Madison branch to the International Space Station.

Nora Bahr, Maker space librarian for Huntsville-Madison County Public Library, standing next to the Carvey CNC milling machineThis spring, the Huntsville–Madison County Public Library (HMCPL) took the term “Maker space” to a different level—more specifically, out of this world—when an unmanned spacecraft flew parts of a project created at its Madison branch to the International Space Station.

Huntsville, a city in Northern Alabama, has been known as “The Rocket City” since the 1950s, when German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun and his team made their home at Redstone Arsenal and built a rocket that would one day take Americans to the moon. Today, it is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) largest center, which leads the agency’s research on spacecraft propulsion and International Space Station design.

In mid-January, a contractor for NASA contacted Nora Bahr, the Maker space Librarian, about the possibility of the library helping out with a project. He was unable to access the machine shop at Marshall due to the government shutdown. Specifically, the employees who operated the machinery were furloughed. HMCPL had opened the Madison Public Library, a new $10 million state-of-the-art facility, in January 2018 with the 12-branch system’s first dedicated Maker space. It had the tools he needed.

“The contractor is actually my dad, Curtis Bahr. He is an aerospace technician,” said Bahr. “He knew about the types of work we were doing at the Maker space and what types of capabilities we had with our machines. I was excited to be able to help him in this way.”

The project involved making a Teflon shim, a very small part that is needed to fit or adjust other components. Teflon is not a difficult material to cut or puncture, but by design it is very slippery, which makes it difficult to cut precisely.

Using the library’s Carvey CNC machine, Bahr took Teflon sheets and used floor tape and clamps to hold them in place while they cut precise rectangles to fit the needed specifications. They made several dozen shims for this experiment, with a few leftover to show off to patrons. The shims are components for a material sciences experiment that will be conducted on the International Space Station.

“When we were planning the Maker space for the new library, we had listed off the possibilities for community engagement with this new technology,” said Bahr. “We never imagined that one of those possibilities would fly into space. But, this is the Rocket City, after all.”

The unmanned Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft launched on April 17 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. It took two days to arrive at the International Space Station. This flight was part of Northrop’s Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA and included the experiment the shims were made for, crew supplies, spacewalk supplies, and several other experiments and pieces of equipment.

In the report to NASA about this experiment, the Madison Public Library is listed as an official subcontractor for their work on the shims.

“NASA was so impressed with the performance of the machine in making the shims that they would like to subcontract the work to the library in the future,” said Bahr. “It isn’t every day that a library is enlisted to help NASA.”

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