For over 40 years, this engineer has helped the Canton plant produce equipment for space exploration

Astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride garner most of the attention whenever mankind ventures into space. But behind the smiling faces of these legends are tens of thousands of individuals who have helped humanity explore the great beyond. Mary Edwards, product engineer and program manager at the Advanced Optics Canton plant, is one of those unsung heroes. 

“We have contributed some of the biggest pieces of glass to the astronomy community so they can search the stars and the galaxies for signs of our origin and all the cool stuff out there in space,” Mary said. “It's just really fun to see articles in the news and realize that, ‘Yeah, we helped. We helped make that possible.’” 

Mary’s Corning career began over 40 years ago. In the early 1980s, as Mary finished her chemical engineering degree at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, she applied for numerous jobs. A tour of the Canton plant, located about 20 miles from Clarkson, left Mary amazed. 

“I watched them make glass out of liquid by turning it into gas. It was like magic,” Mary said. 

Sold on Corning, Mary joined as a process engineer and helped make glass herself. After six years of glassmaking, Mary moved into quality assurance, where she got her first exposure to the world of space. 

Corning has constructed the windows for the International Space Station and every manned American space flight through the shuttle program. The Canton plant maintains an expertise in space products that have played a historic role in keeping astronauts safe. 

For several years, Mary’s quality assurance team inspected these windows, ensuring that they could withstand the intense temperatures, pressures, and impacts of space. 

“We clamped each window in a fixture and then put it through a temperature pressure cycle. And we applied a whole bunch of pressure on each surface of the window to make sure that it didn't break,” Mary said. 

This process was engineered to catch flaws undetectable to the naked eye.  

"The idea was that you break it here on Earth so that it doesn't break later when you're counting on it. None ever broke in space,” Mary said, noting that NASA sent back some of the used windows to Corning for inspection, with obvious damage where tiny micrometeorites had struck the surface - evidence that the windows stood up to the impact. 

Mary and the other Canton employees watched space shuttle launches on TV, swelling with pride knowing they had helped produce the glass the world was watching. Plenty of astronauts also visited the plant, too, and thanked the employees.  

“They would say that when they were in space, the ability to look back down and see home was just really, really important to them,” Mary recalled. 

After her stint in quality assurance, Mary began her 30-year tenure as a product engineer for Ultra-Low Expansion (ULE®) Glass. During this time, Mary helped construct the primary mirror for the Kepler space telescope, launched by NASA in 2009. 

“We helped discover thousands of potential locations for planets in the sky that other instruments could then go and study, looking for viable planets that could sustain life,” she said. The Kepler telescope confirmed more than 2,662 planets during its mission. 

To keep launch weights low, the mirrors for these types of space telescopes are extremely lightweight and quite fragile at various points in the production process. That’s part of the fun for Mary, who sees a specific puzzle to solve with each mirror. 

“Every project I’ve been a part of has been unique. Yes, there's a family of lightweight mirrors, but every time a new program comes along, there are new challenges,” Mary said. “I think that just keeps it interesting.” 

Mary also worked on projects for land-based telescopes - like Subaru, which is the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan in Hawaii, and Gemini, a pair of telescopes located in Hawaii and Chile - with much heavier and larger mirror designs. During production, Mary and her colleagues walked on the mirror surfaces and knelt to inspect closely with microscopes for any defects. “It's hard to imagine if you haven't done it - being on a piece of glass that big and knowing that you made that piece of glass and here you are just walking on it in your sock feet. It's kind of a different day at work than most people have,” Mary said. 

Now in decade five at Corning, Mary still feels energized entering the plant every morning, knowing that her work has a positive impact on her team, the Canton plant, and in the world.  “Mary is a true subject matter expert, and she is highly regarded by her colleagues in the global ground-and space-based telescopes community. Mary’s vast experience of overcoming technical obstacles and her established network is a true asset to our team, and it’s been an honor to work with her for the last three decades of my career,” said Dave Navan, product line manager, Advanced Products. 

As for Mary, she’s excited for the years and projects ahead of her. “Corning has a big role in providing the materials and the processing technologies that enable NASA to do all the phenomenal work they do,” Mary said. “We're just one of the supporting actors, but it's a very inspiring thing to be working on.”