Astronaut starts sewing a star quilt in space

Star quilting blocks aligned to create an out-of-this-world astronomical quilt that pulled together the talents of an astronaut, Johnson Space Center team members, and enthusiastic crafters from all over earth.

Astronaut Nyberg star quilt NASA

Well-traveled star quilt brings crafters together

Mention the words “NASA Astronaut” and you’ll usually conjure up the image of a brilliant, number-crunching engineer or a super-smart scientist. Yet, rarely are we given the chance to consider the other dimensions to this elite group of explorers or that they may share some common hobbies many of us more Earth-bound citizens enjoy.

Enter astronaut Karen Nyberg, an accomplished woman who  spent a total of 180 days in space in 2008 and 2013 — first as a Mission Specialist on STS-124, then as a Flight Engineer on Soyuz TMA-09M.

Nyberg holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering, which may lead people to believe she is focused solely on technical matters… but as with many people, there’s a softer side to this Midwesterner, one that may catch many by surprise.

“I love to create,” says Nyberg. “I would really like people to see you can have a job like this, which is very technical, and still have hobbies that are not.”

Nyberg grew up the small town of Vining, Minnesota, about 80 miles southeast of Fargo, North Dakota, where she was the fifth of six children. There, she grew up learning a lot of practical skills, including sewing.

“My mom and dad are both very creative people, and made a lot for all of us kids — everything from snowmobile suits to prom dresses,” Nyberg says. “My mom taught me to sew when I was about five or six years old.”

Now as an adult, Karen still enjoys those creative crafts including sewing and quilting. “I love it. I would sew all day every day if I could, I love it that much,” Karen says. She especially likes quilting and appliqué work, and used those skills to create a lot of the décor for her son’s nursery before he was born.

Well-traveled star quilt brings crafters together

The Star Quilt project got its start with a single 9-inch square completed in space on the International Space Station Expedition 37 back in 2013. Soon thereafter, Nyberg spoke from space, and invited fellow crafters to join her in stitching together a global community space quilt.

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NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg quilting (2)“I was chatting with Karen Nyberg after a preflight meeting one day,” says Maura White, multimedia technical monitor in the Information Resources Directorate. “She told me about her plans to make ‘something’ in space with fabric. I didn’t have any suggestions for Karen for making a patch, but I did offer advice to not lose the needle…”

Feeling warm & fuzzy

Not only did Nyberg keep hold of the needle, but her love for space and crafts was duplicated on the ground with participants all over the globe submitting their own star-themed blocks for the quilt, which was displayed during the 40th Anniversary International Quilt Festival in Houston in 2014.

“Now that I’ve tried my hand at sewing in space, I can say one thing with certainty: It’s tricky,” Nyberg says in a video downlinked from the orbiting laboratory. “It’s far from being a masterpiece, but it was made in space… I can’t wait to see what we make together.”

Stacey Menard, deputy chief within the Safety & Test Operations Division, jumped at the chance to contribute her efforts to the unique crafting challenge.

“This project combined two of my passions — space and quilting,” says Menard. “How could I refuse?”

What no one realized, however, was how the project would grow exponentially — much like our rapidly-expanding universe.

Quilters from NASA, Johnson Space Center & beyond

“Since the project was started by an astronaut, we wanted to involve as many quilters associated with NASA and JSC as we could,” Menard says. “Quilters have a very connected community, and we knew we could take advantage of that. I have to chuckle, because when we were advertising the block challenge, Quilts, Inc. only planned for 10 panels. I got a kick out of seeing their faces when almost 2,400 blocks came in!”

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Though all blocks and panels were displayed at the International Quilt Festival, the team is planning to incorporate the remaining loose blocks into panels for future displays.

Getting the quilt to the festival in one piece required not only a “block party” to assemble the blocks into panels, but also a “binding party” to sew the quilt to the backing. There was also a one-day blowout session  to attach the binding and hanging sleeves.

All of it was worth it, though, when Nyberg was able to unveil the astronomical quilt and speak to the immense community — backyard and worldwide — effort that made the project more than just a specialty flown item returned from space.

Stars from across the globe

The crafting project held a lot of meaning for all the participants.

As quilter Tammy Bourgeois wrote, “Enclosed is my star quilt block for Karen Nyberg’s challenge. I would be honored to have my block incorporated into the quilt with a block that was made in space. This block was not made in space, but it was made lovingly with two hands that helped launch many astronauts into space. I am proud to say that I worked 19.5 years as a chemist/engineer for Lockheed Martin on the Space Shuttle Program at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Thank you for the opportunity to contribute and to be a part of this history-making quilt.”

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NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg quilting (1)“As I worked my way through the large pile of blocks stacked next to my sewing machine, I was amazed by the fact that I was sewing together blocks in no particular order,” White says.

“I put blocks from Ohio next to blocks from Australia and Japan. The League City, Texas, block went next to a block with a star originally pieced together in 1880, which went next to the block from Canada, which went next to the block from Russia. My panels spanned the world … and time. I’m so lucky to be a part of global projects like the International Space Station and the quilt challenge.”

For White, this quilt and her contributed square checked off one bucket list item — having her work displayed at the International Quilt Festival.

“Now, off to hold a monkey, which is somewhat further down on that list,” White laughs.

More crafts from space

Is this the last stellar idea combining the arts with space? Menard doesn’t believe so.

“The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launches in 2018,” Menard says. “We could do a miniature quilt challenge. Folks could use Hubble or JWST images to make small quilts to be displayed at the festival.”

Another idea would be to create some NASA lesson plans around sewing and textiles “and make more of a STEAM (I just heard that term recently, and love it!) curricula,” says Menard.

So instead of the typical science, technology, engineering and math push — NASA could insert the ever-important and beloved “arts” into the mix.

No matter how the quilt ends up leaving its beautiful imprint, one thing is for certain — it has already touched the hearts of many.

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