By Debby Woodin
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Paul Whitehill has taken on hundreds of projects over the years, but one of his latest ones is out of this world. Whitehill's company, Images on Tile, used photos of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and Earth sent by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Voyager spacecrafts to decorate the exterior of four new buildings constructed at the entrance to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The work was part of a space center renovation project that revolved around building a six-story exhibit space for the retirement of Space Shuttle Atlantis.
Images in Tile was contracted by the project designer, PGAV Destinations, of St. Louis, to make the tile murals that would be applied to the exteriors of buildings where admission tickets are sold and tour groups are launched.
The building shapes were round or angled.
"This was a very challenging job. There was not a flat surface on any of those buildings," he said. "All of the buildings were convex or completely round or with curved angles, as well as window and door placements. We have worked on those type of surfaces before, but nothing as large."
A lot of engineering work went into figuring out how to apply flat tiles to those shaped surfaces. The answer did not involve a shaped or curved tile, though.
"It probably took longer to do the engineering than the rest of the project," Whitehill said. "It came down to engineering a flat tile of a specific size, 7.75 inches by 7.75 inches, to make the curves (fit) seamlessly."
The 4,400 square feet of building exterior took about 7,000 tiles to cover. Each building was about 1,100 square feet. Once the tiles were made, the installation work was completed in about two months.
How many tiles were broken in the process?
"They did not break many. We only had to replace about a dozen," he said. "But because this is a digital process, I'm able to go back and duplicate any tile (that needs to be replaced)."
Far more challenging than the installation was making sure that the image on the tile would not fade or discolor in Florida's tropical climate. He said that the harsh environment includes glaring sun, heat and humidity part of the year, some cool and cold temperatures periodically and salty air from the ocean.
The company relied on a recently developed type of ceramic toners that are fired onto the tiles in a kiln. The tiles, he said, are incredibly durable and UV stable, so they remain unchanged under the duress of the sun's degrading UV rays.
Before that process was developed, the company's exterior murals were placed in locations where they were shielded from direct sun.
"But with the new process, we can install them without fear of them fading in the sun," Whitehill said.
The Kennedy Space Center project was not the first one where the new process was used, but it is the largest, he said. He believes the durability of the tiles is at least 40 to 50 years, adding that through history, ceramic pigment murals have lasted hundreds of years.
Images in Tile has produced mural tiles since 2003 at its Joplin manufacturing site after the company was started in 2002 in Denver. While it has previously provided works for the Walt Disney Co., Hilton Hotels, Whole Foods and Jimmy John's, Whitehill said he sees the Kennedy Space Center project as a significant accomplishment.
"We were real excited to be a part of this project," he said. "This is a national monument shared by people from all over the world."
The Voyager Spacecraft 1 was launched in 1977 and is now at the edge of the solar system, expected to reach interstellar space within a few months. It is 7 billion miles away from Earth and it takes 10 hours for it's low-frequency transmissions to reach NASA. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990. Source: www.NASA.gov.