ALBEMARLE, N.C. – You might say they're the wipes that make space travel possible.
At American Fiber and Finishing, just outside of downtown Albemarle, they take cotton, and make cheese cloth, medical gauze, book spines and a lot of things. But they also make special cotton wipes that are cleaner and shed fewer contaminants than the ones you can buy at a store. Some of them, NASA says, were used to help make space probes and rockets involved with the Orion project. One of those spacecraft is set to launch Thursday for its very first test run, and scientists hope to use what they learn to send astronauts to Mars someday.
Dot Whitt, the quality assurance manager at the plant, picks up one of the wipes. "They take a cloth like this, put the solvent on it, and wipe it down," she says.
NASA and airplane makers use these cotton wipes before they paint or apply adhesives. "The surfaces have to be clean, and they have to be clean to a certain level," says Whitt, "because when they apply the paint they want the paint to last for 40 years. That is the life of an aircraft."
American Fiber and Finishing has between 70-75 employees, and has been open as a textile mill for the better part of a century. The company ships its wipes to contractors, but not directly to NASA, so before I called Dot on Wednesday morning, she didn't know her company was on the official supplier list for Orion. Her company has supplied cloth wipes for spacefaring projects before, notably the space shuttle. "We've supplied these products for a number of years," she says, talking about small pieces of cloth that make bigger things possible.