September 16, 2008

Votaw Involved in Development of Ares I Rocket

By Ryan Carter

The next generation of space travel has roots in the San Gabriel Valley, and it has local aerospace firms setting their sights on the moon and beyond.

With NASA planning to retire its aging space shuttle in 2010, area firms are busy manufacturing key systems for Ares I, the next U.S. flagship in space. The program is helping to drive the economic engines of eight local firms, from Monrovia to Santa Fe Springs, which are reaping the benefits of $409.5 million in manufacturing contracts to California companies.

"They are all saying, 'Oh, goodie,"' said Nancy Sidhu, vice president and senior economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

In what has been a down period for manufacturing, Scott Wallace, president of Votaw Precision Technologies in Santa Fe Springs, and Mike Petriccione, the firm's sales director, have good reason to be optimistic. Votaw, which began in 1963 with three employees and grew to a company of 135, has seen 25 percent of its 2008 sales related to Ares I, Wallace said.

"It's huge to us," Wallace said of Votaw's contract with NASA prime contractor Alliant Tecksystems in Minneapolis. The contract calls for the development of specialized tooling - large casting cores, or molds - designed for Ares I's rocket booster segments.

"You have to be at the top of your game to even be considered for something like this," Wallace said.

It hasn't hurt that Votaw has worked with Alliant for more than 20 years, developing key tools for the shuttle's solid rocket boosters.

Votaw is one of eight local companies working on the first stage of the project, which consists of a solid rocket booster - a reconfigured version of the Space Shuttle's twin boosters. The 165- foot rocket will burn more than 1.3 million pounds of propellant that will launch 36 miles into into space before the rocket floats back to earth for re-use.

Work on the the project's "upper stage" rocket involves 90 local firms, seven of which are in the San Gabriel Valley. Those seven - G&D Industries in Covina, Hoefner Corp. in South El Monte, Le Fiell Manufacturing Co. of Santa Fe Springs, PAC Foundries in Industry, Parasoft Corp. in Monrovia, Precision Tube Bending in Santa Fe Springs, and Steven Label Corp., also of Santa Fe Springs - will contribute to systems to propel Ares farther into space.

Ultimately, the rockets will power NASA's Constellation Program Fleet, which along with Ares I, includes a cargo-launch vehicle to get hardware into space and to the moon, and the Orion, the craft that will ferry astronauts through space.

The first Ares I test flight is scheduled for 2009, with a scheduled crew launch planned for no later than 2015. NASA is planning trips to the moon by 2020.

"The goal is to get to the moon and stay a while," NASA spokeswoman June Malone said, adding that Ares missions will include visits to the international space station.

But to get there, key subcontractors are needed to develop intricate systems that NASA and its prime contractors - Allitan, The Boeing Co. and Pratt & Whitney Rocket - need to get off the ground, Malone said.

Preliminary design review for the project was completed last week, Molone said, adding that the project and its $3 billion budget is moving forward.

And that could be a very good thing for the San Gabriel Valley, Sidhu said, provided that Congress and the next president agree.

"Like all the moon projects, beginning with JPL, there are lots of suppliers to NASA and they are all over L.A., but particularly in the San Gabriel Valley," she said. "So if we can get that program in the budget, then yes, it's a big deal. It means more jobs, and normally they are manufacturing jobs and they pay well."

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