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Measuring up: Delaware company takes pride in making NASA's space suits

Nestled between cornfields in Frederica, Delaware, there's an unassuming building where they’re sewing together something spectacular.

FREDERICA, Del. — Emily Heuring has been sewing since she was 17.

“It’s like a dance. You and the machine are dancing together. It’s a much more delicate art than what you would think it is.”

She works at ILC Dover as an engineering technician and trains sewing technicians on how to sew NASA's space suits.

She said, “It’s really cool to tell people that I get to work on space suits.”

ILC Dover is a specialty engineering development and manufacturing company. It was founded in 1947 and has outfitted every U.S. astronaut in the Apollo program, and created suits for the Space Shuttle program, the International Space Station and SpaceX.

Peter Van der Kley is a design engineer in ILC's Space Suit Assembly division and said because spacesuits are government life-critical hardware, they need to be tested and certified. 

He said ILC engineers scoured hundreds of spacewalks to see how many times an astronaut makes certain motions to determine its expected life.

"We have a set of movements; a certain number, certain specific motions that we have planned that basically simulate the life of the suit on orbit.  We design them and test them to make sure that we don't have any kind of catastrophic failures," he said.

On the day WUSA9 visited, Van der Kley led engineer Luke Marshall in a series of space suit tests.

Credit: WUSA9
ILC Dover, Frederica, DE

“There’s a lot of wearing and tearing that happens and we want to make sure the materials can survive the length of the suit or glove life,” Van der Kley said.

Unlike the Apollo suits that were made for each astronaut, today's space suits are made up of components and weigh about 300 pounds. Marshall said putting one on is like wearing a big metal heavy coat.

ILC Dover Quality Manager and company historian Bill Ayrey started with the company in 1977 and has more than 150 space suit test hours.

He said, “With that helmet on, you can’t hear anything. It’s like being in a big bubble.” He added, "It's really a very, very comfortable suit to be in."

Ayrey said the company's suits have been used in more than 250 space flights, six moon landings and more than 3,000 hours of spacewalks without a single failure.

ILC Dover office museum is filled with memorabilia and thank you notes from astronauts. One from Jim Lovell read, “To the gals of Frederica. Thank you for sewing straight and careful. I’d hate to have a tear in my pants on the moon.”

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