Windsor Locks’ Hamilton Sundstrand Suits Up for the Future of Spaceflight

by | Apr 27, 2011 5:28pm
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Posted to: NASA, Space Shuttle, Tech Biz

Doug Hardy photo

Steve Dionne, senior project engineer, with an Apollo-era spacesuit.

CTTechJunkie is at the Kennedy Space Center this week to witness the last launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour — the penultimate flight of the Space Shuttle program. We will be posting photos and video throughout the week.

Bob Scagni’s first day at Windsor Locks’ Hamilton Sundstrand was in 1965. The company, then called Hamilton Standard, was well into developing space suits and environmental systems for the moon landings, transitioning what was learned from their work on the Mercury and Gemini programs. But now the space industry is about to be disrupted by scrappy commercial startups — and Hamilton-Sundstrand is quickly retooling itself to prepare for rapid and unpredictable change.

Scagni’s career spans what is likely to be remembered as a time of big, decades-long government contracts and stable transitions from one program to the next. For Hamilton-Sundstrand, the stability helped the company evolve its life-support technology for long-duration spaceflight and other aerospace and marine applications.

The Space Systems division only accounts for 6 percent of Hamilton Sundstrand’s business. But Scagni is quick to point out the innovations achieved in the small division pay off with big dividends.

“I always used to think the space business is the technology base of this country. A lot of things come from space, I don’t mean the Velcro stuff, just the processes - the technologies will be used later on in medicine and different other industries,” Scagni said.

During a tour at Hamilton Sundstrand’s Windsor Locks labs in April, Scagni discussed a visual timeline displaying of the company’s involvement with the space program. The timeline’s panels cover three walls, starting in the 1960s with Mercury followed by Gemini, Apollo, and Shuttle, with the last two panels showcasing future possibilities.

“That’s history,” Scagni says, referring to the panels covering the 1960’s to 1990’s. Pointing to the portions of the display covering the 2000’s, he says “I could take these last two and rework them. It changes!”

And that change is coming fast. With the Space Shuttle fleet set to retire later this summer, what’s next is still up for debate. For the first time in the history of the manned space program, NASA is transitioning from one set of launch technology to another without naming a clear successor program.

Following the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew in 2003, the Bush administration set in motion a transition plan to retire the aging (and expensive) Space Shuttles to build new, less costly vehicles based on shuttle technology. The new program, Constellation, was to take humans back to the moon and establish a permanent presence there. It was to be followed by deep space missions that would eventually land a crew on Mars.

Last year, the Obama administration announced the cancellation of the Constellation program, citing cost overruns. More than $9 billion had been spent on the program and more was needed to ready the new launch system to safely transport astronauts to orbit.

Obama’s plan opted instead to focus on commercial entities providing low-Earth orbit launch services. A few months after Obama’s announcement, upstart SpaceX successfully put an unmanned test capsule in orbit. SpaceX promises to deliver crews to the Space Station at a fraction of the cost of a Space Shuttle flight. It is not known when SpaceX’s system will be ready for human crews, but company officials are optimistic to begin human transport in three years.

Constellation was formally canceled in the FY2011 budget recently passed by Congress. But congressional delegates with shuttle-related jobs in their districts were able to keep parts of Constellation alive. The new budget preserves funding for a mammoth rocket capable of lifting 130 metric tons into orbit. It also will continue work on the Orion crew capsule.

Hamilton Sundstrand’s retooling efforts are aimed at making their manufacturing process more nimble and efficient in the face of what likely will be a more competitive commercial spaceflight marketplace.

Kevin Grohs, a lab manager in the Space Systems division, says the company already is making changes to be more efficient and competitive. The lab has salaried engineers working closely with hourly employees carrying out various tests and calibrations for equipment destined for the International Space Station.

“In the old days - a year and a half ago - all of the engineering staff would sit in a different building,” Grohs said, adding that it could take three or four hours or even an entire shift before problems could be resolved.

“Now we have the guys 80 feet away who can hopefully assess the problem, correct it in real time, and keep it moving.”

The company also is adjusting for a faster product flow. On a tour of a new area under renovation, Grohs said the next step is to move away from facilities designed to work on only one type of product toward new flexible spaces that can be rapidly reconfigured. He said it currently takes about two months to reconfigure an area for a different product. Grohs said the new lab will cut that time down to two days.

“We tore it all the way down to the foundation and are building a world-class, lean manufacturing facility and test area that’s going to be operational in June of this year,” Grohs said. “The idea is to be flexible and modular so we change product lines quickly.”

While things are changing there is some stability for Hamilton Sundstrand. Steve Dionne, a space systems senior project engineer, says the space suit Hamilton Sundstrand designed for the Shuttle program will continue for some time.

“Space Station will go to 2020, potentially 2028. As long as it’s in orbit they’ll need the current space suit,” Dionne said.

The company already has worked to change the suit to be reconfigurable in orbit. Suits used to come back down after every Shuttle flight. Now they’re serviced mostly in orbit. Engineers needed to make adjustments to wiring and other components to make the servicing easier for astronauts in orbit. Many of the Station’s life support and environmental controls are manufactured in Windsor Locks. And with one Shuttle packed and ready for launch Friday and the last one due to depart in August, the pace is frantic.

“With only two shuttle flights left - we need to make that bus,” said Warren Lester, a shift foreman in the testing department, “It’s all about the pace that we’re working on now, trying to meet those goals.”

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