Shuttleman

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This article is from Issue 10 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Sarah Brady

A NASA contractor by day, Scott Phillips has built more than 100 detailed wooden space shuttle models to commemorate famous occasions and people in the space program. His crowning achievement is a time capsule that is too amazing to hide underground.

What is a time capsule? It’s a piece of the past, a curiosity most often buried underground or sealed in a vault or cornerstone, housed in a mundane metal or polymer box. A time capsule contains messages from the past, predictions, memorabilia. The inside of a time capsule is a story written and saved, to be told later.

However, a unique time capsule created by Scott “Shuttleman” Phillips and sealed less than a year ago, has a story that should be told now.

The capsule is a space shuttle replica crafted of 25 wood species, with a walnut pedestal base. The base houses NASA photos, messages from astronauts and other personnel to family and friends, and predictions about the future of space exploration. Though most time capsules are buried, this one is on display at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where Scott has worked on NASA’s shuttle program as a Lockheed Martin engineering contractor for 28 years. His passion for his life’s work is infectious. 

“The shuttle program is the most outstanding thing this country’s done except going to the moon,” he said. “This the fifth year for the international space program, which means we’ve sustained life off this planet for five years ... our children have the possibility of actually being the mayor of the moon or a senator of Mars. That possibility is out there.”


When the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry three years ago, it was the beginning of a long journey for the thousands of people who work on the shuttle. More than two years later, with countless long hours worked and lives rearranged, the space shuttle safely returned to the sky under the name Discovery. “Shuttleman” organized and executed a fitting tribute — bittersweet though it was. Aside from commemorating the Return to Flight (so named by NASA), he built the model/time capsule as a memorial to two coworkers and his own father, all of whom passed away while the shuttle was grounded.

“I had love in it, I had grief in it, I had excitement in it ... I knew it was going to be a legacy,” Scott said. 


FREEHAND (AND PATTERN-FREE) work on the bandsaw is one of Scott’s first steps in making one of his intricate space shuttle models.

What’s in a name?

Besides sharing with The American Woodshop’s Scott Phillips one of the most familiar names in woodworking, Scott also has a nickname that reflects his hobby. But he didn’t earn it by building his models — that probably just helped it stick.

“Actually, my claim to fame as a young man — I worked on the first shuttle prior to its launch,” he said. “I was the last man out of the external tank of the space shuttle before it took off. So I got my nickname, they started calling me Shuttleman.”

Scott has been working on the space shuttle since 1978; specifically, on the external tank — the large fuel tank that dwarfs the shuttle itself and propels it into space. The Marshall Space Flight Center builds the shuttle’s external tank and boosters, while the Johnson Space Center in Houston manages the orbiter and trains the astronauts. An expert in shipping and other logistics, Scott has worked on all three versions of the external tank and has been part of the Marshall team since the beginning of the shuttle program, through all 114 launches. 

Scott started building his wooden models of the shuttle at home in 1985, and since then has made more than 100 of them. Most have been gifts to astronauts, shuttle personnel and high-profile NASA officials. Many of the models commemorate (and are named after) particular shuttle flights, and Scott endeavors to have these autographed by crew members. Through his wooden models and his work on the real-life space shuttle, he’s rubbed elbows with a lot of famous names in space travel. 

“I look at these models as experiences. I get to meet a lot of different people,” he said. “I’m a historian when it comes to space; I’ve lived it.”

In fact, one of Shuttleman’s heroes is Homer Hickam, whose story was told in the 1999 movie “October Sky.” The two sat next to each other at the ceremony to dedicate the Return to Flight time capsule. When Scott asked him to sign a book, the inscription read: “To Shuttleman from Rocketboy.”

DO YOU MAKE ANYTHING ELSE? is a question that Scott often fields. The answer is yes: this music box he made for his wife, Dianne, is an example.

The ultimate project

There are two things about Scott’s time capsule that make it rather atypical. First, it is stored aboveground at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Second, there has not been a date set to open it. 

“Most [time capsules] are to be opened in 50, 100, 200 years, but this one will be opened on a predictable, historical event: the landing of an American astronaut on Mars,” Scott said. 

Building the elaborate space shuttle model for the time capsule and organizing the collection of items to be stowed in its base was a process that took more than a year. Scott and an assistant solicited the contents — items such as patches and pins, photos, letters, astronaut autographs and mechanical drawings — from Marshall personnel. They also collected predictions for the Mars landing and other space-travel milestones, storing them on CD, DVD and memory stick. A selection process narrowed down the contents — including a message from Scott to his two sons, Christian and Tyler — and all were sealed in the 8.5" x 11" x 12" compartment.  

The predictions for an American reaching Mars varied, but “potentially it is within my lifetime,” he said. But the main point of the capsule is to help future generations remember the shuttle program. For his part, he left a message to his sons in the capsule. 

“The space shuttle is going to be retired in 2010. Eventually it is going to go away. My legacy to my family and to the shuttle program is housed in the time capsule.”  

Scott developed an interest in time capsules when the City of Huntsville requested his expertise in stabilizing and shipping a capsule that had leaked and gotten wet. 

“I didn’t know anything about time capsules when I was thrust into it,” he said. His research led him to the Web site of Oglethorpe University, which has developed time capsule resources and  standards, and a registry. Oglethorpe recommends, among other things, keeping a formal record of the capsule’s contents and remembering it with periodic ceremonies or announcements. The shuttle time capsule was dedicated in a ceremony last fall and was signed by all the crew members of Discovery.

The Return to Flight time capsule needs another bit of important info to be remembered: how to open it. Scott left a record with his family and on a steel plate embedded in the bottom of the time capsule of how to open the compartment, a tricky procedure that was fun for Scott to concoct (and whose intricacies, of course, are classified). 

True love

Scott’s love of wood comes from two sides of himself: the craftsman and the engineer. As the latter, he finds himself fascinated by the very fibers and structure of the stuff.

“When I finish one of my models, I put lenses on and go microscopic to really look at the grain, the pores,” he said. “It’s like going underwater, going into another world … nature is amazing, and the average person just drives right past a tree and doesn’t understand the inner beauty.

“I was always interested in wood, and then later in my adult life started learning about exotics,” he said. “I also love walnut, cherry, oak ... all the indigenous woods.” Scott pays a great deal of attention to the meaning behind a piece of wood; for example, he was thrilled to get some walnut from trees on his grandmother’s farm, which had been cut and stored in a barn for 40 years. He used them to build special gifts for two Apollo 17 crew members on the 30th anniversary of that mission.  

He also built items for a friend from the wood of a tree the friend swung from as a kid, after it was hit by lightning. “His family still has those items today,” he said. “I guess I’m not in love with the form so much as the significance of the wood.”

It sometimes takes him as much as a year to gather just the right wood pieces – which sometimes come from unexpected sources. 

“A Dole banana truck came into the loading dock, and the driver said, ‘I’ve got a skid in my truck that has some different kind of wood in it.’ ” The shipment had come from Ecuador; the wood was well-seasoned African mahogany. Starting its afterlife as a pallet, it became a space memento autographed by Bob Crippen and John Young, crew members of the first-ever shuttle flight.

Like shuttle personnel who specialize in everything from foam to space food, Scott’s woodworking niche is his models. He challenges himself to add another detail each year, and endeavors to use greater numbers of species in each model. But simply put, “If you make enough of something, you’re going to get good.” Scott cuts most of the wooden pieces freehand on the bandsaw, and turns the large tank and boosters on his lathe. Though Scott does occasionally build other items – an adirondack chair or jewelry box from time to time – his main passion is the shuttle models. 

A VORTEX OF HEAT from the rocket engines is simulated with a stacked and dyed laminate called diamond wood, while a spiral pattern on the boosters signifies upward motion. The time capsule base is shown closed and open, revealing some of the contents that are now sealed inside.

A YOUNG MODEL BUILDER shown in his rural Ohio home in 1971, Scott would grow up to be a NASA engineer who never gave up his hobby.

“The hardest part of the whole process is laminating,” he said. “I might have a wood from Africa that glues up with a wood from Israel that glues up with a wood from Alabama. Like a song is made of notes, my models are made of different woods.”

Most woodworkers know it’s not always fun to join dissimilar woods. Woods like teak and cocobolo repel liquids (including glue) which makes them great for boats but not so great for lamination. But the engineer in Scott persists. In a tricky case, he prepares both surfaces to be glued with a deglosser product (available commercially), which strips the oils from the surfaces temporarily. Apply the glue within the right window of time, and the glue will bond before the oil rises back to the surface.

To finish up, Scott puts in hours and hours of hand-sanding. “I finish these very fine because people want to touch them. I have no problem with that ... but people usually wait until I leave the room anyway.” 

CRAFTED WITH PRIDE, this is just one of the 100-plus models Scott has built to commemorate shuttle flights.

Passing it on

Scott was born in Bryan, Ohio — “home of the Dum-Dum sucker and the Etch-a-Sketch” — and developed an interest in models (and woodworking) at an early age. He also closely followed the United States’ accomplishments in space travel. Now he wants to use his models and the stories behind them to motivate young people to take a greater interest in space exploration. 

“In my lifetime and for the generation before mine, there was always a frontier,” Scott said. “We settled the west, and as we moved forward into the 20th Century we traveled to the moon.” But the following generation has become discouraged, he said. “All they really remember is the Challenger disaster, as well as Columbia. The legacy is failure, not success. We want to leave the next generation the ability to reach out to the next planet.”

In order to do that, NASA will have to be able to replace its outgoing workers with equally visionary young people, Scott said. He worries that there are too few good mentors, such as the high school instructor who encouraged him to pursue his interest in woodworking. 

“My shop teacher took me under his wing and said, ‘You’re a crazy guy. You like woodworking, don’t you?’ Now there are fewer and fewer young people taking industrial arts in school. That takes aesthetics, and a sense of accomplishment, away from young folks,” Scott said.

“We’re in the 21st Century now. I want the next generation to know what wood is. We’re seeing it replaced by composite materials,” he said. “But you can’t reproduce the look of wood as it ages and patinas, wood that has been hand-hewn by some individual. We’re losing that.”  

To that end, Shuttleman likes to share his woodworking techniques with, well, anyone who will ask.

“I have met a lot of woodworkers who are older, and they are very secretive about what they do,” he said. “They don’t want to tell you where they get their wood, how they carve, what glue they use. That’s the old mindset. My mindset is, tell them everything you know ... the more you’re open, the more questions you will get, which poses the need for more answers.”

The paper trail

When you receive a shuttle model from Scott Phillips, you get a lot more than just the finished project. Scott gives each model a serial number and documents the species used, dates constructed, and the “complete history” of the piece. He wants the pieces to become heirlooms, and envisions the children of his co-workers telling their children how Grandpa worked on the space shuttle.

“I’ve already had the children [of some space shuttle recipients] call me and ask for photos of their fathers or uncles receiving the models,” Scott said. Photos are important because “as the wood patinas down, it will darken. It will look different 20, 30, 40 years from now.”

Documentation is important for any woodworker who values his finished pieces, Scott said. “It’s important to mark your work, because most people don’t throw away things that are made for them. Mark it with a brand, take a picture, and record its history. That way, over the years, you can go back and answer questions. It’s a reference guide for you, and an exclusive piece for a person that has that item. It’s free; it costs nothing. You don’t have to pay anybody to mark or document your work.” 

Most importantly, keeping a record of your building experience can help you remember a very enjoyable time in your life. Scott is glad he tracked the planning and building of his space shuttle time capsule.  

“When somebody says, give me an amount of time, tell me how many hours it took, how hard it was ... I really can’t answer. If somebody asked me to build another one I couldn’t do it. That time is gone. 

“It was such a fantastic venture, I don’t even remember making it. I feel almost guilty taking credit for it, because it was so worth it.” 

—Find out more about Scott’s work at shuttleman.com.

Sarah Brady

Sarah Brady is production director of Bird Watcher’s Digest and a contributing editor to Woodcraft Magazine. Her hobbies include hiking, reading, crochet, brewing beer and observing live music performances.

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