In March, nearly 12,000 people applied to join NASA’s next class of astronauts. That’s the second highest number ever, and occurred despite an increase in educational requirements—from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree in one of the STEM fields—and a shortened application periods.
That’s just the first step for the space agency’s Astronaut Selection Board, which will assess applicants and invite the most qualified for interviews and medical tests. Only a few will be chosen, if the past predicts the future. According to NASA, 350 people have trained as astronaut candidates since the 1960s; 48 astronauts are in the active astronaut corps.
That nearly record-setting number of applicants, however, speaks to the existence of a robust pipeline of space enthusiasts at a time when the United States appears to be upping its space game, particularly manned flights into space. Most recently and visibly, for example, history was made in late May as NASA astronauts for the first time launched to the International Space Station from U.S. soil in a commercially built and operated American space vehicle. The SpaceX Crew Dragon on May 30 lifted off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and a day later docked at the space station’s Harmony port.
That’s just one example. Other programs in the works include NASA’s Artemis program, currently slated to get astronauts back to the Moon by 2024, if everything goes according to plan. And NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is scheduled to launch the Perseverance rover to the red planet in July or August and land on Mars in February 2021. Unmanned, perhaps, but it is an ambitious step toward getting humans beyond the Moon.
And, of course, there’s space tourism, with companies like Virgin Galactic aiming to take the general public on suborbital trips that would never even have been envisioned only a few years ago.
With all eyes beyond the skies, IndustryWeek spoke with several manufacturers about the joy and manufacturing challenges related to launching humans into space. Here is some of what we learned.
The Joy: Back to the Moon
Andy Crocker is a long-time space enthusiast. He’s a little too young for the original Moon landings to have been the impetus for that enthusiasm, but the director of space strategy at Dynetics, a Leidos Co., can trace early space-related interest back to an eighth-grade science project on space stations.
“I don’t remember why I chose space stations, but I did,” he says. “And I knew I was interested math and science, and had already been kind of thinking in that direction for a career.”
Today the aerospace engineer works at one of the three U.S. companies chosen by NASA earlier this year to develop human landers that will land astronauts on the Moon as part of the Artemis program. (Blue Origin and SpaceX are the other two.) NASA describes these human landers as the final piece of the transportation chain required for “sustainable human exploration of the Moon.” Other pieces of that chain include the Space Launch System rocket, the Orion spacecraft and the Gateway outpost in lunar orbit.
The United States has not been to the moon with a crewed mission since 1972.
Dynetics’ Human Landing System team includes about 25 subcontractors, with Dynetics as prime contractor and system integrator. “The way we proposed it, and the way we intend to execute it, is by having a lot of very capable small- and midsized businesses on our team who have expertise in various areas. So, there are certain areas that [Dynetics] will have the lead on in the design and manufacturing,” Crocker says, citing propulsion as one example. “In some of the other areas, we'll have our subcontractors lead because they've got particular expertise in those areas.”
As you can probably imagine, the technology embedded into any space application is sophisticated—and fascinating. Crocker, who also holds the title of deputy program manager for Dynetics’ human landing system, shared several of the “wow” factors that make up Dynetics’ concept.
Automation will play a big role. For example, Crocker outlined a scenario in which the lander is launched in three major pieces due to its size, on three different launch vehicles about two weeks apart. The pieces nevertheless arrive in lunar orbit at about the same time, at which point they automatically put themselves together into a single system, check themselves out “and say, yes, we’re good to go,” Crocker says. Of course, it's not quite that simple.
Dynetics' lander is meant to be sustainable. For example, after the first mission, the lander takes off from the surface of the Moon and returns the crew to the space capsule, which then takes the astronauts back to Earth. The lander, however, remains in lunar orbit, where it can be refueled and made ready to go again. In effect, the lander is reusable. “So, it's a much more affordable and hopefully a more reliable way to have repeated lunar missions that can sort of sustain this program and keep it going without requiring billions and billions of dollars every time you want to go,” Crocker says.
The deputy program director can’t hide his enthusiasm for the lander program.
“It really is sort of the Holy Grail for a lot of us who are space nuts. We want to be involved in, not only just getting to space, but getting to another destination beyond Earth,” Crocker says.
“That further destination is that level of adventure that I think we're all kind of looking for, and even though most of us won't travel in space in our lifetimes, being part of enabling space travel for people and for…everything that we get out of space exploration is why we're in this.”
Miles Free can likely agree. The director of industry affairs at the Precision Machined Products Association is, like Crocker, a space enthusiast. “It’s been a long romance,” he says of an interest that dates to eighth grade—again similar to Crocker—when he entered his model rockets in the science fair.
Increasing Private Enterprise
Free is excited by the growth inroads made by private enterprise into space exploration. “Space is no longer the province of nations and governments,” he says. “Private companies are doing the job that it took nations to do when I was a kid.”
Indeed, remember the 2018 Falcon Heavy launch by SpaceX in which two engine booster modules were able to simultaneously and autonomously land? Free described the event then as a milestone in the renaissance of “manufacturing, engineering and entrepreneurial accomplishment here in America.”
“That event alone demonstrated to me that the future of motor vehicle—and manufacturing—is going to be increasingly autonomous,” he says today. “Think about it: How do we improve quality in industrial processes? We remove the human from the process. People are high variance. Automating is low variance. Now we just have to get the design of the programs right and redundant with safeguards. So space is the frontier where we can continue to innovate.”
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is an example of private enterprise’s increasing role in space, and the May 30 SpaceX Crew Dragon launch was a demonstration. The Commercial Crew Program is a partnership with private enterprise to develop and operate a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems for carrying crews to low-Earth orbit and to the International Space Station.
That May flight, known as NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2, was an end-to-end test flight of SpaceX’s crew transportation system and a step on the path to get certified for regular crew flights to ISS.
“You can look at this as the results of a hundred thousand people roughly when you add up all the suppliers and everyone working incredibly hard to make this day happen,” said SpaceX founder Elon Musk in a statement on the day of the launch.
The Commercial Crew Program works differently than previous NASA approaches to obtaining transportation systems. Traditionally, the space agency oversaw every development aspect of the craft, support systems, and operations plans, and it owned the hardware and infrastructure. With the Commercial Crew Program, interested companies have greater autonomy to design in the way they think is best, and then apply efficient, effective manufacturing processes to make it happen. Safe, reliable and cost-effective means of getting people to low-Earth orbit, including ISS, is the goal, and the companies own the hardware and infrastructure.
The Challenge for Manufacturers
Manufacturing for space applications is not for the faint of heart. As Free notes, manufacturers aren’t going to be producing batches of components, precision is well beyond ordinary requirements, and quality failures are not an option.
“This isn’t about traditional cycle time, machine rates or cost per pound,” Free says. The payoff for the shop is going to be on lessons learned to meet the challenges these parts present, lessons that can pay off on future orders of similarly difficult parts.”
Permac Industries agrees. The Burnsville, Minn.-based manufacturer makes precision machined components and specializes in aerospace, medical devices and defense, among other industry verticals. Permac has and does produce parts for space applications.
“A lot of aerospace parts can be complex and difficult,” says Mike Bartizal, vice president and director of operations. Unfamiliar exotic materials can present a challenge, for example, or designs with very thin walls due to a need to reduce weight. “[The parts] tend to be pushing the extremes of capabilities of manufacturing processes and tolerances and whatnot. For us the challenge is: How do we make that part that much better? It makes us think outside the box.”
And while a part for space applications may not be the most profitable, “it’s spun off different ideas that rolled into different processes,” Bartizal says.
Moreover, adds Permac Industries President and CEO Darlene Miller, “We have the talent. We have such knowledgeable machinists who love to take on these challenges. It’s exciting to be part of the next chapter, whatever that may be.”