Bill Shepherd’s father, George Shepherd, was an aeronautical engineer by profession and a serious basement sailboat-builder in his spare time, and his son worked alongside him from the age of six, absorbing it all. The love of boats took him to Annapolis and the Navy SEALs, the interest in aeronautics took him from the SEALs to the Astronaut Corps, and those basement shop skills he took with him into orbit, where they proved surprisingly useful.
When Shepherd and his wife Beth moved to Russia in 1996 so he could start training for the Space Station, he brought along his favorite garage accessories. Among them was a cordless jig saw that anyone could buy off the shelf in any Home Depot in nineties America. He used it to do some remodeling around the townhouse the Russians provided for them in Star City, and he used it to build a bar in the basement.
“Shep’s Bar,” as it came to be known, is an earthly version of the Star Wars cantina, an offbeat spot for space travelers from different cultures to mingle and chill. Twenty years later and long after Shepherd himself retired from NASA, Shep’s Bar is still the cool saloon in Star City. I’m looking forward to having a drink there myself, and promise a blog post direct from the bar.
But the jig saw story doesn’t end at the bar. Shepherd was named the first commander of the ISS and he and his Russian crewmates, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, were due to launch aboard a Soyuz rocket in October, 2000. They were each given a shoebox-sized container for personal items. “The Russians weren’t too picky about what went in there,” Shep says today, so he tossed in the little jig saw thinking it might come in handy.
As the first crew to occupy the station, Expedition 1 had to get it up and running and encountered several problems that couldn’t be solved with advice from the ground. The biggest annoyance was the missing galley table in Zvezda, their Russian-built living quarters. The mock-up they trained in had a fold-down table they used for everything from a workbench to shared meals, but last-minute weight constraints left it behind when the real module was launched three months earlier, and no-one had told them. When they asked when the table might be sent up, the answer was, um, we’re not sure.
Shepherd, Gidzenko, and Krikalev talked it over, then went to work whenever they had a few spare minutes. Shep broke out the jig saw, lathered the blade with shaving gel to capture metal filings in zero-g, and carved up some aluminum racks that held oxygen cannisters and were no longer needed. Over the next two weeks those scrap pieces were drilled, tapped, fitted and bolted together in what Shepherd describes today as “kind of a stealth project.”
Smiling at the memory, he recalls how Mission Control—both in Houston and Moscow—took note of the new galley table. “They were looking at the video going ‘What is that thing?’”
For the next four months their hand-crafted table served Expedition 1 as the hub and heart of onboard activity, then filled the same role for Expedition 2 until it was finally replaced by a table designed for the purpose. Today that improvised table, the first artifact ever fabricated in space, is in the collection of the National Air & Space Museum, inscribed by the crew in paint pen with the Latin motto ex nihil summa, the best comes from nothing.
And the saw used to make it?
“I smuggled it back to earth when I landed,” says Shep. “I wanted to destroy the evidence.”
He says this while holding up the saw, which had been in a box of memorabilia he was donating to the Cradle of Flight Museum in Garden City, Long Island. We were fortunate to be on hand when he unpacked the box for the museum curator, telling the story behind each item, remembering the early days of the International Space Station.
“NASA would totally have a cow if we tried to do something like that today,” he chuckles. “But sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.”
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