The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union was an era of unrivaled innovation and discovery. Even before NASA’s introduction of the Mercury 7 astronauts to the world in 1959, work was well underway to create the hardware needed to get them into space and safely home again. Southern California was a hotspot of activity in support of the American space program with numerous prime and sub-prime contractors based in facilities in Southern California. North American Aviation was one of these and it was tasked with developing the motors that would power the Redstone booster that would take the Mercury capsule beyond the earth’s atmosphere. This work provided opportunities for a number of supporting businesses in the area. One such company was a three-man operation called Astro Pak which was founded in 1959 by Carl Verheyen and James St. Clair to provide specialized cleaning to flight hardware.
Even after USSR’s Yuri Gagarin and USA’s Alan Shephard became the first two humans who traveled to space in April and May of 1961, the race was not over as it would continue for another decade with many men and women following the path they had blazed. Similarly, Astro Pak continued to play its role supporting the increasing amount of spaceflight hardware being built for Mercury as well as for the following Gemini and Apollo programs. In addition to North American Aviation – later becoming part of Rockwell International – industry leaders McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics played increasing roles. Astro Pak served them as well, growing along with the space program.
As Apollo gave way to the Space Shuttle in the 70s, Astro Pak expanded to serve the broader aerospace industry over the following decades. Fast forward to today, after a hiatus in American manned space vehicles following the Shuttle’s retirement, Astro Pak finds itself continuing its tradition of providing precision cleaning services to not just one, but all four of the manned spacecraft programs currently underway: SpaceX Crew Dragon, Boeing’s Starliner, NASA’s own Artemis and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander.
SpaceX Crew Dragon
With its first unmanned flight lifting off a few months earlier than its Boeing counterpart, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule became the first privately developed spacecraft to deliver astronauts to the ISS with its second flight at the end of May 2020. In a truly bicoastal effort, Astro Pak crews in Downey, California and at the Space Coast worked on different components of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle as well as the crew capsule. Astro Pak technicians cleaned the manifold tubing and hoses that are components of the nine Merlin 1D motors that power the first stage as well as the single Merlin 1D Vacuum which propels the second stage with its capsule onward after separation. The majority of the work was performed on the miles of tubing through which fuel and oxidizer travel from their respective tanks to the motors. Both teams processed flight hardware in the capsule itself, including filters, valves and flex hoses.
The Florida team previously performed work at the historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), processing the stainless steel convoluted hoses for ground support equipment. As a result, it can be said that Astro Pak has worked on the Crew Dragon launch vehicle literally from the ground up. That metaphor also applies to Astro Pak’s extended history with SpaceX which precedes the Crew Dragon program. According to Robert Pozil, Astro Pak’s Chief Business Development Officer, “Our relationship with SpaceX began many years ago when we provided guidance for precision cleaning best practices and advised SpaceX on how to set up their own cleanroom. We became a trusted advisor and when their need exceeded their capacity, that opened the door for us to support their high volume of space flight hardware component cleaning.”
Boeing Starliner CST-100 Commercial Crew Vehicle
Aerospace giant Boeing was awarded, along with upstart SpaceX, contracts from NASA to develop launch vehicles to transport astronauts from KSC in Florida to the International Space Station in orbit 254 miles above earth. In 2018, two tanks needed to pressurize the crew capsule’s propulsion system became contaminated. Because this posed a potential setback to the launch schedule, Boeing reached out to Astro Pak’s Space Coast team for assistance. Due to the geometry and design of the tanks, cleaning was especially challenging. However, the Florida cleanroom team fabricated a custom cleaning fixture that was able to clean the tanks far beyond expectations.
This success led to additional services for systems that had already been installed into spacecraft and further work has been performed both on the capsule that was launched, unmanned, in February 2020 in Orbital Flight Test 1 as well as the next capsule which will fly as part of Orbital Flight Test 2. With up to six manned flights per year planned once the spacecraft is certified, there is plenty of opportunity for ongoing support work.
In some regards, working on Starliner will be a renewing of Astro Pak’s partnership forged with McDonnell Douglas decades earlier as that company has since merged into Boeing.
Blue Origin Blue Moon Lander
While Blue Origin’s New Glenn heavy lifter did not win a contract from NASA for manned launches to the ISS, the company which was founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has another project in the works. Blue Origin is leading the team developing the Human Landing System (HLS), working with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and the Draper Laboratory. The HLS is part of NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon within the first half of this decade. Blue Origin’s name for the spacecraft is Blue Moon.
In mid-summer 2020, Astro Pak’s Downey, CA facility processed a pair of five-and-a-half-foot diameter spherical aluminum tanks which will contain the liquid oxygen (LOX) used to help propel the lander to a safe touchdown on the lunar surface. The tanks were flushed, cleaned and underwent a cleanliness verification process before being returned to the customer – a long time client of Astro Pak.
Blue Moon’s first flight is currently scheduled for some time in 2023. It will be an unmanned test carried aloft by the company’s New Glenn booster which is named after pioneering astronaut John Glenn. New Glenn’s first flight is expected for the first part of 2021 and it will lift off from Launch Complex 36 (LC-36) at KSC. In preparation for this, Astro Pak was commissioned to process a variety of 20-foot pipe sections at its Florida facility. These pipes measure from 2 inches to 32 inches in diameter and are destined to be part of the system that delivers the intensely cold liquid hydrogen and oxygen from the launch facility’s tanks to the onboard fuel tanks of the rocket immediately prior to launch. “Astro Pak is a preferred vendor for Blue Origin for this service due to our attention to detail and high quality of work,” said Alex Hamby, Operations Manager at the Florida location. “Our procedure is approved, and Blue Origin directed that we be brought in to perform the service.” Alex went on to say that Blue Origin has been very pleased with our work as it has allowed them to remain on schedule. If the New Glenn becomes human-rated in the next few years, it will become, along with NASA’s own Space Launch System, part of the program returning humans to the Moon for an eventual permanent presence.
Announced in 2011, NASA’s Artemis Program is America’s super heavy-lift launch vehicle intended to take astronauts back to the moon. Billed on the agency’s website as “The Twin Sister of Apollo”, it will not only allow NASA to “land the first woman and next man” on the moon, but it will also be the means for developing an extended presence on the lunar surface. NASA’s use of the commercial Boeing Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for crew transfers between the earth and ISS allows it to focus on Artemis and the agency’s mandate to conduct missions beyond the ISS’ orbit including manned and unmanned expeditions to Mars and beyond.
The astronauts and their capsule, along with the Gateway Outpost in lunar orbit and the other vehicles and support equipment will be carried aloft by the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS will rival the legendary Saturn V of the Apollo mission in terms of lift capacity with a variety of configurations. The first flight, known as Artemis 1, is currently scheduled for a November 2021 launch with a mission to put an unmanned Orion capsule around the moon and return it to Earth.
In advance of the launch, Astro Pak has been providing in-house precision cleaning services from its California and Florida cleanroom locations as well as on-site precision cleaning field services supported by a mobile cleanroom lab. Technicians had been involved in various projects to support the SLS since 2015 with the latest work primarily centered on the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP). The MLPs are the launch pad and support tower that have served every NASA manned space mission since the Apollo days. The rocket sections, boosters and capsule are “stacked” on top of the MLP in the Vehicle Assembly Building and then slowly transported to the launch site on the crawler-tractors. The Florida teams cleaned, hydrostatic tested, passivated and performed verification testing on miles of tubing and piping. The systems that were processed included the ground heat exchangers as well as the lines for the cryogenic liquid hydrogen fuel and liquid nitrogen that the SLS will use. Other systems included those for hydraulics as well as gaseous nitrogen.
In an example of synergy, if the SLS does send humans to Mars, part of their mission will likely be to retrieve the samples collected by the NASA/JPL Perseverance Rover which launched in July of 2020, a mission Astro Pak also helped to prepare for its trip to the Red Planet.
Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two and LauncherOne
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is another private space company and is moving forward to tapping the space tourism market. Even though it does not achieve orbit, the SpaceShip Two-class suborbital spaceplane VSS Unity is indeed a manned spacecraft. It is carried aloft by the White Knight Two from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Once at altitude, Unity will detach and its rockets motors will carry its passengers above the 50 mile (80km) altitude considered to be the boundary between earth’s atmosphere and outer space, giving them a few minutes of weightlessness and making them astronauts.
Astro Pak has performed a number of services on Unity on behalf of its manufacturer, The Spaceship Company, which is owned by Virgin Galactic. “We have cleaned everything from tubing, fittings, hoses, valves and Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessels (COPV) of all sizes” says Jeff Daglish, Astro Pak’s account manager for Virgin Galactic. “They came to Astro Pak for precision cleaning and passivation and our crews have performed work in our California cleanroom as well as on site at their facilities in Mojave, CA and at Spaceport America.
Unity is not the only Virgin Galactic spacecraft that Astro Pak has serviced. The company’s Virgin Orbit division is dedicated to small satellite launch services. The flight profile is similar to that of Unity’s with LauncherOne being taken up to launch altitude under the wing of a converted Boeing 747 airliner where it separates and proceeds to the desired orbit.
As with Unity, Astro Pak has processed an extensive number of components for the rocket; fittings, hoses, tubes and COPVs. In addition, “we have also processed well over 250 samples for them to verify cleanliness,” says Jeff.
The Sky is Not the Limit.
With the commercialization of space and the new boom of manned exploration, space isn’t the final frontier, but the first step for mankind to spread among the stars. The formation of the US Space Force also promises further advances in technology and knowledge. Astro Pak is proud of its ability to leverage its over 60 years of working to support spacecraft manufacturers and applying it to this newest generation of space travel.