For a month, a dozen people worked long hours on a big project inside one of Microsoft’s vast model shops. They designed, measured, drilled, turned, hammered, welded, shaped, painted, tested and redesigned again and again. The final product was unveiled on a festive stage, but it wasn’t another Surface, Xbox or HoloLens device.
Instead, the hardware is a full-size replica of the Apollo 11 hatch from the Columbia command module. The replica of the spacecraft hatch was unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., on July 18, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic moon landing.
Adam Savage of Tested and “Mythbusters” fame hosted the live-assembly event, called Project Egress, for which he invited 44 makers to each recreate an individual component from a groundbreaking digital model of the Columbia hatch. He specifically asked Microsoft’s Advanced Prototyping Center (APC) to create the hatch, the largest and most significant component.
For APC manager John Haley, the side project was an exciting team challenge and a demonstration of the lab’s massive machining capabilities and expertise.
“This was a passion project that people put their whole heart and drive into,” Haley said.
“They went above and beyond, because the regular work didn’t stop. It’s going to be amazing to have a piece in the Smithsonian.”
It was also a major logistical challenge on a tight deadline. At roughly 2 feet by 3 feet and designed to match the conical shape of the Columbia, the hatch required use of 5-axis CNC (computer numerical control) machines, in addition to high-speed 3-axis machines. The APC, housed in a bunker-like building in Redmond, Washington, is one of few facilities with the people, tools and skills to handle such a complex job – which is exactly why Savage asked the lab to tackle it.
But unlike aerospace shops with enormous equipment, the lab houses machines for prototyping computer devices, which were too small to cut the hatch as a single piece. Breaking down and designing separate pieces was one of many puzzles to solve, especially as the scope of the project ballooned with additional requests.
In addition to making the 65-pound hatch replica, the team designed and welded a 140-pound steel stand, encased in plywood, to display the hatch when completed. The team integrated 211 brass inserts into the hatch, so Savage and other builders would be able to attach parts faster during the live assembly. Savage’s team also asked the lab to supply descriptive plaques, which the lab quickly made with a waterjet and ultraviolet printer in-house just in time.
Much of the logistical work landed on Jay Trzaskos, a model maker and prototyping architect who iterated on the design challenge over many late nights and early mornings to meet a long list of goals. The hatch had to be light enough for easy handling, but durable enough to support the weight of added parts. It had to be accurate in measurement to the real hatch – including size and location of every insert – and beautiful with no visible seams or rough edges.
The team used a high-density plastic tooling board, specifically sized so each section of the hatch could fit in the lab’s CNC machines. It also designed the display stand to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act for the Smithsonian.
“So a lot of work went into this, a lot more than we thought it was going to be,” Haley said.
Trzaskos, a longtime NASA fan who studied mechanical and aerospace engineering, didn’t mind. On the day he learned of Progress Egress, he happened to be wearing a NASA shirt and commemorative Apollo 11 sneakers when he glanced at a model of the Columbia on a co-worker’s screen, instantly recognized it and bobbed with excitement.
“To be able to say I worked on something connected with the Smithsonian is huge,” said Trzaskos, whose grandfather had worked on Apollo guidance systems. “But just looking at the Apollo missions and what the engineers accomplished, it’s inspiring. Saying ‘something is difficult’ wasn’t an option. You have to push to be successful and find the most elegant solution within the timeline.”
Based on his designs, lead model maker Eric Roth and other machinists constructed eight pieces that would become the hatch. For Roth, it was a fun job in a fun place, a grown-up toyland brimming with state-of-the-art 3D printers, laser cutters, fabric splitters, industrial waterjet machines, and wire and form electrical discharge machines. Project Egress was a chance for Roth to stretch his passion for building.
“I was always making things as a kid,” he said. “I was given a budget of one Scotch tape roll a day and easily went through it with all the paper-tape-string things I made. I saw ‘Tron’ and the next day, I had string and taped paper things running everywhere.”
After assembly, model maker and finisher Thomas Randall hand-sanded the hatch and painted the front the same color as Microsoft’s Surface silver, evoking the Mylar thermal coating of the Columbia’s heat shield. He then pounded in all 211 brass inserts. The project appealed to Randall’s industrial design background and passion for large-model rocketry, rooted in a childhood with parents who built and launched rockets with car batteries on dates. He liked challenges.
“Project Egress perfectly ties into what we do every day in our jobs,” Randall said. “We iterate on an idea and make it work.”
The components from other makers turned out to be one of the biggest challenges. The team didn’t know the weight of the components, but wanted to ensure the hatch was stable for Savage and his team to assemble on stage.
The APC group studied historical documents and estimated the weight of over 300 potential attachments, including screws, to be about 160 pounds. Trzaskos then modified the display stand design in CAD (computer-aided design) to safely lower the model’s center of gravity. Randall measured the inserts’ pull strength – the weight the screws can hold before failure – and found they can hold thousands of pounds.
“This is not only about providing something that’s going to look great, but making the experience as easy and seamless as possible,” said Trzaskos.
When Savage visited the APC in May, he loved the lab’s powerhouse capabilities for rapid prototype iterations that merge beauty and function, from next-gen headphones to the pioneering “zero-gravity” hinge of Surface Studio.
“This is one of the most intense and delightful playgrounds I’ve ever stepped into,” he said on his podcast, “Still Untitled: The Adam Savage Project.” Creator of Tested and the show “Savage Builds,” the former “Mythbusters” host met many of the APC’s industrial designers, mechanical engineers, model makers, toy designers, sculptors, welders and artists who comprise the 60-member group.
“The energy of people doing a job they love and who feel valued is impossible to overestimate,” he said.
Microsoft model makers often draw inspiration from side projects, including a robotic hand they helped a young engineer make for a 10-year-old girl missing her right arm. For the Apollo 11 celebration build, the hatch itself symbolized a feat of engineering that was deeply motivating. Able to swing outward in five seconds, the “unified hatch” emerged in the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts who couldn’t open the original three-part hatch design in time to escape.
“It’s the perfect story of human ingenuity,” Trzaskos said. “It’s a story of how much can we persevere and come together to meet a goal. That’s what we do – adapting and working together to solve problems to create the best product that reaches and inspires everybody.”
By Vanessa Ho