Longmont aerospace firm providing power for NASA's Orion spacecraft

LONGMONT — When NASA’s Orion spacecraft heads for Mars in the coming years, it will be powered in part by lithium-ion batteries that are being made by an aerospace company in Longmont.

NASA’s Journey to Mars initiative, in the works for the past six years, took center stage at the Plaza Convention Center during an event hosted Tuesday by Joe Troutman, senior manager at EnerSys Advanced Systems – ABSL Space Products, the company making the powerful batteries.

The event, held under a banner that read “The Road to Mars Goes Through Longmont,” drew attention to Enersys’ work for NASA’s space program and the hundreds of aerospace companies in the state.

“Our lithium-ion batteries will power the Orion spacecraft not just to Mars, but also the moon, asteroids and deep-space planets to collect data, map the solar system and take soil samples on planets,” Troutman said. It also could be used to retrieve crew or supplies from the International Space Station.

“This will be the most powerful rocket ever,” he said. “It will take years off of trips that now would take a satellite a decade. … And it will be capable of moving an asteroid off course if it would collide with Earth.”

The teardrop-shaped Orion crew capsule is designed to ride on top of a space launch system, or SLS, carrying a crew of four astronauts into deep space. NASA plans to use the Orion and SLS combo to send astronauts to an asteroid in orbit around the Moon in the 2020s, a program known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission. After that, Orion will eventually be used to send a crew on Mars sometime in the 2030s, though details about when and how that will happen have yet to be clearly defined.

Markeeva Morgan, NASA’s avionics hardware subsystem manager for the project, told attendees that testing the system is “happening now. … We are applying the core elements of the Space Shuttle, but we are improving them. We are pushing the technological envelope. … This isn’t science fiction. This rocket will make what before was impossible yesterday’s news.”

Morgan said large custom tools had to be crafted to build the 200-foot-tall core stage being constructed in New Orleans.

Representatives from Boeing Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp., two key contractors working on the Orion project, made presentations about their companies’ involvement.

Joe Rice, director of government relations for Lockheed Martin, said the Orion program is on track, but years behind in a sense because funding for its predecessor plan was cancelled.

Rice said space-program funding cuts are not the fault of lawmakers because they take their cue from the general population.

“They won’t fund what is not being talked about,” he said. “It’s up to us,” referring to the aerospace industry, “to tell our story and be an advocate for space exploration.”

Ed Wolff with Boeing said parts of the craft are being constructed now, with assembly and testing going on in several locations throughout the country. He said an unmanned test flight launch from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., is set for fall 2018.

As the event’s host, Troutman took the opportunity to point out that Colorado is ranked No. 1 as the state with the most private aerospace workers per capita and the second-largest aerospace economy, with more than 400 companies providing 163,000 jobs and $3.2 billion in annual payroll — data compiled by the Colorado Space Coalition.

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