An Orbital ATK technician inspects hardware and instrumentation on a full-scale, test version booster for NASA's new rocket, the Space Launch System. Courtesy Orbital ATK
When the first astronauts take off for Mars in the 2030s, a handful of West Michigan companies will have a hand in getting them there.
At least 50 Michigan businesses are building components for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket (SLS) and Orion spacecraft. The rocket is the largest ever constructed by NASA.
Orion and SLS are currently being built and tested in preparation for a 2018 launch to test the capabilities needed for human deep-space exploration.
The first human-crewed mission for SLS and Orion is planned for 2021.
NASA has said the SLS will launch crews of up to four astronauts in the agency’s Orion spacecraft on missions to explore multiple deep-space destinations, including a return to the moon planned for the 2020s and culminating in the manned Mars mission.
Plascore of Zeeland is one of the West Michigan companies developing components for Orion/SLS.
Plascore manufactures lightweight high-strength parts, including aluminum honeycomb cores for energy absorption applications.
The company has developed an energy absorption system specifically for the SLS rocket launch pad.
“The parts we make are corrosion-resistant bonded panels that don’t go with the rocket but ensure the rocket gets off the planet free and clear, so it can do its travels,” said Joe Englin, Plascore market development manager, aerospace.
When it launches, “hoses and umbilicals will be dismounting from the rocket itself, and they have to go somewhere,” said Patrick Bryar, new market development manager. “They need to make sure it’s a soft impact, so they use aluminum honeycomb to act as a load-limiting energy absorber.”
The parts Plascore is creating measure approximately four feet by two feet and are 12 inches thick.
Englin said Plascore doesn’t have a long-term contract with NASA but anticipates continued involvement with Orion.
“The materials we provide are engineered to be solutions from us as a company, so we are kind of locked in,” he said. “We have already been involved in development and launch tests.
“They’ve been doing tests of our systems over the last two years and have continued to make minor tweaks to improve the performance in their application, and we foresee we will be involved in all launches going forward from here.”
Englin said being involved with NASA projects carries multiple benefits for the company.
“From our perspective, support of the SLS and Orion program is not only economically good for our company, but it’s also cool to be involved in. Our employees like being involved in these projects,” he said.
He also said some of Plascore’s suppliers are indirectly benefitting from the Orion/SLS project.
“For this application specifically, we have to source some machined aluminum panels. Those are sourced locally,” he said.
That’s one reason given by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, ranking member on the Space, Science & Competitiveness Senate subcommittee, for leading a group of 16 senators in recently calling for “strong funding” for NASA’s Orion spacecraft and SLS rocket.
“Michigan has a number of outstanding companies providing services and products to NASA,” Peters said. “It bodes well for us in the fact that what we do extremely well is advanced manufacturing; we are able to make things. We are a growing powerhouse in the aerospace industry.
“The fact that these companies are suppliers to the SLS/Orion mission shows they are on the cutting edge of providing high quality products for advanced products, engineering and technology.”
Peters said he supports stable funding over the long term for the Orion/SLS project.
The funding that’s been proposed is $2 billion for the SLS rocket and $1.3 billion for the Orion spacecraft for 2016.
“You have to maintain the level of funding to get to the completed project,” Peters said.
Peters said he believes the benefits of supporting Orion/SLS will go beyond NASA.
“Pushing out to the frontier of space inspires the next generation of engineers and scientists, creates technologies and scientific advances that make life better here on earth, and helps power the dynamo of American industry,” he said.