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Shuttle Disaster

Innovator retains faith in thermal tiles

By SCOTT BARANCIK, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2003

MIMS -- Art teacher Chip Gillespie hasn't told his students at Pinewood Elementary about his work on the space shuttle's protective tiles.

Chances are these children of the Space Coast wouldn't be impressed.

Shane Gainer, 10, crafting a picture he called "Memory of Columbea" during class Monday morning, said his father works on the shuttle's external fuel tanks.

Twins Lauren and Felicity Barrows, 9, believe their grandfather, now a janitor in a South Carolina warehouse, was once an astronaut.

Fifth-grader Allen Clark said his mother, uncle and grandfather all worked in the space program.

Gillespie's role in the shuttle's history is a bit more obscure.

In 1980, at age 26, a chance meeting with a high school friend led him to work for Rockwell International, which was having trouble getting ceramic tiles to stick to the shuttle Columbia's exterior. Gillespie, a ceramic artist, figured he could help. He was quickly hired and began to work with others to prevent the tiles from "zippering" off in the company's stress tests.

"The body of the tile wouldn't be strong enough," said Gillespie, who's now 48. "If you glued it on, the bond where you glued it on would stay, but the tile itself would pop off."

Gillespie and others came up with innovations. "I tried to apply some of the same technology I had used for aesthetic purposes on the space shuttle."

Preparing for the shuttle's first test flight in 1981 was painstaking. Gillespie had to get at least four people to sign off on each of more than 30,000 tiles. He learned to identify anomalies and came up with standard repairs.

Its tiles apparently in flying condition, Columbia flew its first test mission on April 12-14, 1981. Gillespie said he was among the first to inspect the craft for damage after it returned from its California landing. The shuttle lifted off again that November.

Soon after, Gillespie asked Rockwell for a leave of absence to finish his doctorate at Florida Atlantic University. He never came back. Instead, he published a manual on ceramic art, produced works for sale to collectors and eventually turned to elementary school art. He has 1,100 students at the Pinewood and Mims elementary schools.

Gillespie never lost his passion for space. His classroom is adorned with dozens of NASA-related posters and books, as well as a model of the international space station his students crafted from scrap lumber and egg cartons. He brings his students' drawings as a visual aid during annual congressional lobbying visits in support of space education.

Last summer, Gillespie worked at Boeing as part of the Summer Industrial Fellowship for Teachers, a seven-week program to help educators prepare their students for careers in the aerospace industry.

"In north Brevard County, we have more or less one industry," he said, "and it's launching things into space."

Gillespie has one more ambition related to space: Last year, he applied to become a space shuttle astronaut. The Columbia disaster has not changed his mind.

Though he declined to speculate on the cause of the accident, Gillespie expressed confidence that the thermal tiles were not responsible.

"I felt like my system had pretty much proven itself to be a functional, standard part of aerospace," he said.

-- Scott Barancik can be reached at or (727) 893-8751.

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