ZEELAND — A small but growing number of West Michigan manufacturers hope America’s space ambitions will take off and allow them to continue to develop a niche market.
As NASA and private space travel companies seek to send people and cargo far outside Earth’s orbit, they’ve enlisted the expertise of a vast network of suppliers, including a handful of companies in West Michigan, to make these missions successful.
Zeeland-based Plascore Inc. is one such supplier that has benefited from increased business through contracts with both government and private space programs.
Plascore is currently working with NASA on its Orion program, which aims to send a manned mission to Mars sometime in the 2030s. The mission marks humanity’s farthest manned space mission outside of low Earth orbit since the Apollo program sent men to the moon through the 1960s and early 1970s.
As NASA embarks on its most ambitious mission to date, Plascore will play a crucial part in getting spacecraft off the landing pad. The company will manufacture an intricate honeycomb structure that will serve as a cushion to protect the spacecraft during launch.
“The simplest description of what we’re doing is we’re making a giant beer can that you’re about to smash,” said Joe Englin, market development manager for aerospace at Plascore.
While on the launchpad, the rocket uses external hoses or “umbilicals” to top off fuel, provide air conditioning and syphon fuel out of the rocket in case of emergency. As the rocket lifts off, those hoses are detached and pulled into Plascore’s honeycomb to prevent damage to the spacecraft and give it clearance to leave the launch pad.
Plascore’s honeycomb structure is made from aluminum foil “not that much different than the stuff you actually use to cover the dishes in your kitchen,” Englin said. The company bonds the aluminum together into an intricate structure similar to a bee’s honeycomb, coats it with a corrosion-resistant material, and then adheres it to a plate that mounts on the launch structure.
The company also supplies its honeycomb material to several other Tier 2 and Tier 3 companies that have components on the NASA program, Englin said.
In addition to the Orion program, Plascore’s honeycombs are used to build platforms for satellites and the solar panels that power them.
Plascore, which employs 280 workers in four manufacturing facilities around Zeeland, also supplies control surfaces, engine cover pieces and other components for the traditional commercial aerospace industry.
While federal and private contracts for space programs have grown over the last few years, traditional aerospace still makes up the bulk of Plascore’s business, Englin said.
“The build rates at major OEMs like Boeing and Airbus are just through the roof right now, which is flowing down through the supply chain and certainly giving us our largest growth in any segment right now,” Englin said.
The company generated annual sales of approximately $100 million last year, Englin said.
Plascore is among a growing number of local firms supplying key components to NASA.
Approximately 50 other companies in Michigan are working in some capacity on the Orion program, according to data from the office of U.S. Senator Gary Peters.
Peters, who is a ranking member on the Senate subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, said supporting NASA and the space program is essential not only to bolster West Michigan manufacturing, but to develop innovative and new technologies.
“We’re a big beneficiary of research grants from NASA, (and) certainly NASA is part of the Michigan economy,” Peters told MiBiz. “I’m a strong supporter of the space program. I believe it has pushed technologies that have applications here on Earth.”
Peters penned a letter in April urging the chairman and ranking members of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies to continue “strong” funding of the Orion program. The letter was signed by 14 other senators.
Later that month, the Senate subcommittee approved a $1 billion increase in funding for the Orion program and its launch vehicle to $3.4 billion, according to a report in SpaceNews.
The bill awaits a vote from the full Senate.
THE NEXT FRONTIER?
While support for NASA’s space program gains steam, the private sector also has ramped up development of commercial space travel in recent years, opening up new market opportunities for savvy manufacturers.
“The shift to the commercial crew and cargo programs has driven competitiveness in the market. From our perspective, that has allowed new ideas to flow more freely,” Englin said.
Companies ranging from Elon Musk’s SpaceX to Blue Origin, a Washington-based company created by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, have continued to push the envelope for commercial flight.
For its part, SpaceX has ambitious plans to outpace NASA in the race to Mars by sending unmanned spacecraft to the planet starting in 2018. After that, it hopes to send another spacecraft every two years, until launching a manned mission to land on Mars in 2025.
Meanwhile, Blue Origin plans to ramp up test flights this year to expedite its vision for wide-spread space tourism, according to reports.
Englin said private space companies are continuing to make up a larger portion of Plascore’s business.
“Since the commercial crew and cargo companies have come on line, there have been several larger companies in the U.S. that have grown out of that to transport cargo and eventually people to and from the international space station,” he said.
Englin declined to reveal specific programs that Plascore is supplying.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that launches for commercial spacecraft will increase from an average of seven launches annually over the last decade to nearly a dozen launches a year through 2024, according to last year’s commercial space transportation forecast.
Private sector suborbital vehicles — launches that reach space but return to earth before fully orbiting the planet — also are positioned to grow over the next decade, according to a study by Tauri Group, a Virginia-based research firm.
The study estimates that approximately 8,000 high-net worth individuals are interested in space flight. The company projects 40 percent of those individuals will embark on a suborbital flight in the next decade.
A NICHE MARKET
Despite the rapidly growing market to supply government and private space programs, it’s not an industry fit for every manufacturer, sources said.
The level of precision required to supply space projects — and aerospace programs in general — is much greater than in many other industries, said Plascore’s Englin, noting the amount of testing that goes into manufacturing for the low-volume sector.
“In automotive, essentially you get into a situation where you take a sample of (your total) parts that you ship,” Englin said. “But in aerospace, you tend to get into a situation where you measure every single part that leaves the facility because you’re only going to make two, and those two better be right.”