ROCKFORD, ILL. - Few people who live along a quiet, tree-lined stretch of Fulton Street realize that inside the buildings at the end of their neighborhood, the future of human spaceflight is taking shape.
“I would doubt many people in Rockford know Ingersoll is manufacturing these components,” Mike Reese, director of sales for Ingersoll Machine Tools, told VOA.
But “these” aren’t just any components …they are critical to NASA’s effort to take people back to the moon, and on to Mars.
“This is going to be some astronaut’s home,” Astronaut Rex Walheim explains, pointing to a shiny, large aluminum ring situated on the floor of Ingersoll’s facility. “This is the barrel section of the Orion, so this is the central section of the pressure vessel. It’s where the astronauts will basically live and work, and the only place they’ll have to go while they’re on this mission. It’s what keeps us alive.”
The “barrel” is one of four components created by Ingersoll for Lockheed Martin, the aerospace company assembling the Orion capsule.
Although Walheim made history as part of the last Space Shuttle mission in 2011, he admits he probably won’t be a part of the crew that will return to the moon, or go on to Mars. He has spent the last six years since the shuttle fleet was retired as NASA’s astronaut representative to the Orion program, working on a project he says has taken longer than anticipated.
“Everybody wanted to do this faster,” Walheim explained. “Everybody wanted the gap between our shuttle and deep space program to be shorter, but we are where we are, and we’ve made tremendous progress and now we’re at the point where we’re building the actual vehicles and we’re testing them and we’re going to fly them.”
A budget proposal by the Trump Administration in March outlines a commitment to continue the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s efforts to send astronauts to Mars. About $3.7 billion is earmarked for development of the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule, which isn’t a replacement for the Space Shuttle, but a next generation space flight vehicle designed to take humans farther into space than ever before.
“NASA’s focus is now on the harder – the more difficult destinations,” Orion Program Manager Mark Kirasich told VOA in an interview while touring the progress of manufacturing at Ingersoll’s Illinois facility.
He said part of NASA’s strategy is letting commercial companies focus on developing equipment for low earth orbit spaceflight, which was the primary mission of the now retired Space Shuttle program, allowing NASA to focus resources on the new equipment in the Space Launch System, and the Orion capsule, with Mars as the ultimate objective.
“We have completed two tests flights to date,” he says. “One of our abort system and our first orbital flight test, and right now we are building – we are about 75 percent complete – with our next flight vehicle which will fly on Exploration Mission 1.”
The Orion capsule “barrel” on display at Ingersoll Machine Tools is earmarked for Exploration Mission 2, which will take astronauts back to the moon by 2023, preparing them for the eventual journey to Mars.
The last time astronauts orbited the moon, Ingersoll’s Mike Reese was a young child.
“I’ve definitely played the Orion cool card with my children,” he told VOA. “I’ve let them go up to and touch the flight hardware and get a chance to see what we’re doing here. They think the whole program and the whole idea of going to Mars is very interesting and very cool.”
Exploration Mission 1, the first full test of the Space Launch System and Orion capsule, is scheduled for later this year. NASA plans to send that unmanned Orion capsule 64,000 kilometers beyond the moon in the first mission on the agency’s path to Mars, a destination they hope to reach by the 2030s.