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Propelling business: a resurgence in Utah's aerospace industry.

MANY AMBITIOUS UTAH BUSINESSES aspire to be the best in the world at what they do. Others find a goal like that far too limiting.

Utah's aerospace industry is soaring with ever more sophisticated technologies that get blasted ever farther out of this world. Just in October, NASA's Cassini space probe entered the rings of Saturn, taking the first pictures from the gas planet, 800 million miles above Utah.

"We provide the ride," ATK Thiokol's executive vice president Kevin Cummings says of the company's mind-boggling missions to launch everything from deep space probes to the Space Shuttle. It was Thiokol rockets that launched the Cassini on its way.

ATK Thiokol is the 800-pound gorilla of Utah's re-awakening aerospace industry, which Governor Jon Huntsman is eager to recruit as part of his plan for economic development and international exposure for the state. More than 4,000 of ATK's employees work from Promontory near Brigham City to the Bacchus Works in Magna. Four hundred work at the company's composites division in Clearfield, turning out lightweight and strong composite components to go on everything from submarines to satellites.

In Logan, Utah State University's Space Dynamics Lab has carved out its own leading niche. Its specialty is building sensing devices to fly on the satellites for which ATK and others provide the rides. It is also a leader in data compression, allowing more and better information to be transmitted, whether the satellite is looking outward, like the Hubble Space Telescope, or inward, looking back at earth to help predict weather or to spy on enemies.

Both SDI's director Mike Pavitch and ATK's Cummings say Utah is coming out of a flat period in aerospace. The collapse of tech stocks, followed by the 9-11 terrorist attacks, dampened the demand for private communications satellite launches and diverted some space-based defense spending to the ground-level war on terrorism.

But work and hiring is now on the upswing in several areas.

ATK Thiokol is growing on two tracks, rocket propulsion and composite materials. Its composites business in Clearfield and Magna is using lightweight graphite-based technology to build airframes and other components for ground-based planes and space-bound satellites. "We can save up to half the weight with the same strength," ATK's composites vice president Mike Blair says. "We're the largest free-standing composites com-pany in the world."

While composites have been around for at least four decades, Blair's group has invented an automated system to place bundles of fiber in a mold where the fibers are laid in several directions for strength and then coated with resin to form the part. "Others have to do this by hand," Blair points out. "We can do it cheaper and faster and make it lighter."

In its Utah plants, the company now builds the tail assembly for the Pentagon's stealth fighter, the F/A 22. Composites are now finding their way into the new Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, Bell Helicopters, and a Boeing commercial jet called the 7E7, dubbed Boeing's "plastic plane," due for rollout next year.

ATK Composites also builds rocket casings for the shuttle motors built at Promontory and casings for a number of other rockets. It also builds casings for satellites, and is competing for a number of defense contracts, including future Navy ships with decking and superstructure made of composites, both for their light weight and their radar-avoiding stealth characteristics.

At Promontory, meanwhile, the company is busy preparing for the Space Shuttle's return to space, set for May. It also has a leading role in coming up with a repair kit so astronauts can repair Shuttle wing damage in flight. (It was a damaged wing that led to Columbia's fiery disintegration in the skies over Texas.)

ATK Thiokol is looking past the shuttle to the next generation of space vehicles. "We're entering into new areas, new missions," Mike Kahn, vice president for space programs, reports. The shuttle will need to fly for at least another five years to carry components and maintain the International Space Station. After that, NASA is looking to build smaller crew exploration vehicles launched with smaller rockets, while evolving the use of shuttle motors for unmanned heavy lifting capacity to get enough equipment in space to launch missions to the Moon and Mars.

It's all pretty heady stuff for Utah-based employees who really are rocket scientists. Between the NASA missions, commercial satellite launchings and defense contracts for systems like the Pentagon's Global Missile Defense, the Promontory plant has grown the past three years. "We'll be adding 400 new employees this year," Cummings reports, "and these are good jobs. Our average employee makes $50,000 a year, nearly twice the average Utah wage."

On the other side of the mountains from Promontory, the Space Dynamics Lab is back to growing after losing jobs last year when the Pentagon cancelled a $26 million dollar contract. "We're now stable and growing," reports Pavitch, a retired Air Force Major General. "Its time for a rebound."


Pavitch sees future growth for his staff of 350 in its sensing and data compression products, which will fly on NASA's next generation replacement for the Hubble and the James Webb telescopes. Other growth will come from an embryonic technology involving a new way to sense pixels of data coming from space and work on devices for UAVs (unmanned aviation vehicles). Pavitch is also counting on a Pentagon contract award for a technology he will only describe as "classified." SDL operates as a private business, but since it is owned by USU, its profits go back to the school.

Closer to earth, other aerospace contractors work at Hill Air Force Base in a support and maintenance role. And the concentration of Utah engineers with knowledge in composites has led to more than a dozen spin-off composites companies making everything from aviation parts to bicycle parts.

"We have a long history of aerospace in Utah," notes Jeff Edwards of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, the nonprofit which recruits new businesses to the state. "It has a wonderful potential for us. These companies come and stay for a long time. They don't move lightly."

But they do move far. As far as the rings of Saturn.

Larry Warren is a Park City-based writer and media consultant, and owner of Warren Media Group.
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Title Annotation:techknowledge
Author:Warren, Larry
Publication:Utah Business
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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