Beyond the Space Coast
The story of Florida’s space industry reaches beyond Brevard County. One such manufacturing company supporting the Florida space industry is Southern Manufacturing Technologies (SMT), located in Tampa.
SMT manufactures valves and parts for machines, including satellites, space probes and more. The company’s work is highly technical as some customer designs call for parts to be incorporated into explosive charges within a valve to trigger a reaction for a specific need. SMT supplied parts to a Mars rover which allowed its solar panels to open, and to New Horizons, a probe sent to Pluto to study the dwarf planet.
“When we started we were focused on the aircraft and aerospace industry,” said Roy Sweatman, SMT owner. “In 1983, we had five people and we really didn’t know these industries would develop quite the way they have.”
SMT now employs more than 100 people and Sweatman has seen the importance of introducing students to manufacturing in order to grow a local pipeline of talent for years to come. The company has hosted five schools and is passionate about professional development as people with specific skills for emerging technologies are not easily found throughout the country.
“As we’ve grown bigger and gotten more sophisticated in what we are doing, it opens up more and more doors, and parts to manufacture become more complex,” said Sweatman. “But it also requires higher skills from our people.”
Another Corridor company is no stranger to training, and is working on solutions to problems posed by deep space travel.
Located in Seminole County’s Geneva, Simiosys focuses on providing mixed–reality experiences – real, virtual and imagined – for varied industries. The company’s latest project is translating its work in effective therapies for aphasia patients to astronauts suffering from isolation in deep space.
Aphasia is a disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate – speech, writing, reading and sign language. However, it does not affect intelligence. The person can still think, but cannot express him or herself through language. The disorder can be a result of a stroke or a traumatic brain injury.
“The root problem with aphasia is that without language, people become isolated from society,” said Chris Stapleton, Simiosys’ experienced architect and producer. “The root problem with astronauts in deep space is that they are isolated from society by the delay in communication … we correlate the isolation in the person with aphasia with the isolation of an astronaut as being the same human core challenge.”
Stapleton’s work is in story therapy and how to translate story troves, boxes of artifacts designed to spark imagination, into a mixed reality setting for astronauts. He has seen aphasia patients overcoming communications barriers when asked to engage with interactive stories.
“Once we are able to create more effective techniques for virtual worlds, we can really improve everybody’s sense of connecting, relating with families and communities – that’s what’s important.”
Suffering from isolation is just one of a number of risks astronauts take. Another is exposure to radiation.
With multiple locations in Florida, Lockheed Martin has teamed up with StemRad Inc. in joint research and development for radiation shielding technology.
The result is a vest that covers from chest to hip, shielding the majority of stem cells in bone marrow located in the pelvis. Stem cells are important because they can have a healing effect – in this case against damaged or mutated cells from radiation.
“As little as 5 percent of bone marrow can help the body cure itself and repair the damage,” said Dave Murrow, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company business development manager. “We don’t believe that going to a full body suit is in the cards as it sort of goes beyond the point of being helpful once you’ve protected the main organs and main repository of stem cells in the body.”
Lockheed Martin is also a major player in going to Mars by building the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, NASA’s first spacecraft designed for long-duration, human-rated deep space exploration.
“We are assembling and building the Orion spacecraft in Florida with a lot of the engineering work done in Denver,” said Murrow. “If and when we fly this vest, all of that activity will take place in Florida.”
While the Space Systems division is located in Colorado, Lockheed Martin has been in Florida for 60 years, and has more than 13,500 employees at more than 90 locations across the state. Every business area of the corporation is represented in Florida.
Life on Mars
Colonizing another planet requires an understanding of how life can survive in an alien world. One researcher at the University of Florida (UF) is pursuing such research now, studying Earth bacteria that can hitch a ride on spacecraft and how they might survive and grow in a new environment.
Dr. Andrew C. Schuerger is a UF research scientist, assistant professor and astrobiologist at the Space Life Sciences Lab, which is part of the Kennedy Space Center. He designed and built a Mars simulation chamber to duplicate the surface environment of the planet.
“I think there’s maybe a half-dozen, high–quality Mars simulators in the world” said Schuerger. “Every chamber is designed a little bit differently. As far as I am aware of, in the United States, this is one of the best Mars simulation chambers. That’s one of the reasons why a number of people approach me for working and collaborating on projects.”
Over a period of five to six years, Schuerger found bacteria could grow on Mars and identified 34 bacterial species. Now he’s researching which ones, if any, could survive more complex experiments.
Schuerger’s work is in response to the Outer Space Treaty passed by the United Nations in 1967. The treaty provides a framework for international space law, including a provision outlining “states shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.” Harmful contamination includes spreading potentially harmful bacteria and fungi from Earth.
In another lab within the same building, Dr. Ray Wheeler could be tending to a dwarf plum tree. He’s a plant physiologist at NASA and is researching ways to grow food in space, including dwarf plants. His research also includes keeping plants short by controlling the light spectrum or restricting root growth, to account for limited space available to grow food on the International Space Station (ISS) and future spacecraft. Limited space means an area measuring about 16 by 16 inches on the ISS.
It might be hard to imagine much of anything growing in such a small area, but small lettuce plants have grown and hopefully Chinese cabbage and dwarf tomato plants will grow in the future.
As for terraforming, or converting the Mars environment to be better suited to grow food – that would require water, increased atmospheric pressure and milder temperatures, which don’t exist. The environment is very harsh, so it’s a very tall order and Wheeler doesn’t see it happening in the near future.
“I can’t imagine 100 years from now humans wouldn’t have gone to Mars and aren’t living on some outpost there,” he said. “I think technically we have the abilities, but it has to be a sustained effort over a decade or two.”
Judging from the research underway along the Corridor, some might say that effort has already begun.
1955 Cold War starts Space Race
1957 Soviet Union successfully launches Sputnik into orbit
1958 Congress establishes NASA
1962 JFK delivers speech to American public at Rice University – “We choose to go to the moon…”
1969 Apollo 11 lands on the moon, Neil Armstrong takes “one small step for man [and] one giant leap for mankind”
1971 Mariner 9: First mission to orbit another planet – Mars
1976 Viking 1 and Viking 2: Probes land on Mars
1997 Mars Pathfinder: Lands on Mars for its rover, Sojourner, to collect data
2003 Spirit and Opportunity: Rovers launch to seek history of water on Mars
2011 Atlantis: Last space shuttle to lift off from Kennedy Space Center; Industry joins NASA as space goes commercial
2012 Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity lands to investigate climate, geology and habitability of Mars
2016 President Barack Obama reinforces goal for U.S. to send humans to Mars by the 2030s; SpaceX sets goal to colonize Mars within 100 years