June 13, 2008

NASA Spacesuit Pact Slips Away From Hamilton Sundstrand

By Eric Gershon, The Hartford Courant, Conn.

Jun. 13--Born in Connecticut, NASA's spacesuit is moving to Houston.

In a blow to United Technologies Corp. and to Connecticut pride, NASA announced late Thursday that it has awarded a $184 million development contract for the next-generation spacesuit to Houston-based Oceaneering International Inc., a company that specializes in deep sea technology for the offshore oil and gas industry.

Engineers at UTC's Hamilton Sundstrand unit developed the iconic spacesuit -- possibly the state's single most recognizable product -- in the 1960s. The Windsor Locks-based company been supplying spacesuits to NASA ever since.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong was wearing a Hamilton spacesuit, also known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, when he became the first human to set foot on the moon on July 21, 1969.

UTC has been using a cut-away illustration of the suit in an international advertising campaign intended to better associate the Hartford-based conglomerate with its subsidiaries' best-known products.

The loss of the spacesuit contract comes just three years after another UTC unit, Sikorsky Aircraft, lost another emotionally significant contract, for the Marine One helicopter the Navy uses to transport the president.

Dan Coulom, a spokesman for Hamilton, called NASA's decision "disappointing, obviously" and said the company would attend a formal debriefing with space agency officials "in a couple weeks."

"We'll decide what to do once we hear what they have to say," he said.

Coulom declined to say whether Hamilton would challenge the contract award, as other UTC units have recently done with other lost contracts. Sikorsky has twice protested the award of a $15 billion search-and-rescue helicopter program to its rival Boeing.

Coulom played down the impact on Hamilton of losing the spacesuit contract, noting that the company's maintenance and repair contract with NASA does not expire until 2014.

Hamilton's Space, Land & Sea unit is its smallest, generating about 6 percent of the company's revenue, or $330 million last year. The spacesuit is a small part of that.

Nonetheless, the loss badly stings the company. It is easily the most identifiable product Hamilton makes. Last October, in the thick of the spacesuit contest, Ed Francis, head of the Space, Land & Sea unit, said, "This is a big deal to us. We feel obligated to compete at the highest level."

Francis was unavailable for comment Thursday night.

Coulom said the loss of the spacesuit contract is unlikely to result in layoffs "immediately" and that other Hamilton projects for NASA probably would sustain employment.

About 1,400 people work for the space division, roughly half at Hamilton's Windsor Locks headquarters and most of the others in Texas, California and Illinois.

NASA officials could not be reached late Thursday. In a statement on the space agency's website, Glenn Lutz, project manager for the NASA spacesuit system at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said: "I am excited about the new partnership between NASA and Oceaneering. Now it is time for our spacesuit team to begin the journey together that ultimately will put new sets of boot prints on the moon."

Connecticut's connection to the spacesuit will not be lost entirely. One of Oceaneering's principal subcontractors is Air-Lock Inc. of Milford, a subsidiary of another Oceaneering partner, David Clark Co. of Worcester. Air-Lock and David Clark will make the new spacesuit's pressure suit, Oceaneering said.

Other Oceaneering partners are Honeywell International, a company UTC once tried and failed to buy, United Space Alliance LLC, Harris Corp. and Paragon Space Development Corp.

Hamilton had formed a special spacesuit company, Exploration Systems and Technology, with ILC Dover of Delaware.

In the spacesuit contest, Hamilton and its competitor are familiar and friendly foes. Oceaneering, which helps train astronauts at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, also provides equipment and tools for use in outer space, sometimes in partnership with Hamilton.

In a statement posted on Oceaneering's website, the company's chief executive, T. Jay Collins, said, "Our commitment to safety and 30-year heritage of developing and providing spaceflight hardware for NASA was instrumental in securing this contract award."

The initial six-year, $183.8 million contract awarded to Oceaneering for the Constellation Space Suit System calls for the company to design, develop, test and make new suits that NASA astronauts would use for traveling to the international space station and to begin work on suits to be worn on the moon. NASA hopes to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. Contract options could bring the value of the deal to $745 million.

The Associated Press reported that the contract calls for a total of 109 suits, 24 of which will be for moon walks.

NASA said it expects to need suits for as many as four astronauts on moon voyages and as many as six "space station travelers." The new suit must allow for a week's worth of moon walks, "a significant number of moon walks" during "potential six-month lunar outpost expeditions" and spacewalk capability.


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