MOUNT AIRY, N.C.—When the Space Shuttle Program was retired in July 2011, it was a sad day for officials at NCFI Polyurethanes, which had been a supplier to the program since its inception.
But that gloom didn't last too long.
NCFI had turned its focus to NASA's planned Orion spacecraft test flight long before that. Orion is the first spacecraft off the drawing board for NASA's new Space Launch System.
The Orion test flight was launched successfully in December.
NCFI has been involved with the space program for the last 30 years as part of the United Launch Alliance—made up a Lockheed Martin Corp./Boeing Co./government agencies consortium.
ULA uses NCFI products on fuel tanks for the Delta, Atlas and Centaur rockets, said Clarence Tolbert, a vice president of NCFI. Basically, as part of ULA, the company has been Lockheed's partner during the production of the external tanks.
The Delta IV Heavy three-core rocket was the platform for the Orion test flight in December.
NASA and the consortium “use our polyurethane foam insulation, specially formulated for high temperature and extreme pressure applications, on their external liquid fuel tanks to prevent condensation and the formation of ice on the tanks that could come free and harm the main vehicle,” Tolbert said.
Charred but OK
The fuel tanks of the Delta IV Heavy three-core rocket contain liquid hydrogen and oxygen, he said, “and are actually a tank within a tank covered by skin onto which our foam insulation is applied by spray.
“Nothing covers the foam, so it's pretty obvious as the golden yellow or slightly orange acreage on the exterior of Orion.”
Tolbert said the test flight was Orion's first, and the unmanned flight took it 3,600 miles into space at speeds up to 20,000 miles per hour and saw temperatures of up to 4,000°F upon re-entry, he said.
“Our engineers and NASA agree our foam performed ideally,” Tolbert said. “It was a bit charred, but that happens naturally when the rockets ignite escaped hydrogen, which is lighter than air, and floats around the craft on the breeze.”
When the main engines reach full thrust, he said, “the lingering hydrogen combusts in the air forming a fireball effect that chars the foam coating. It's normal, and doesn't affect the foam's insulation properties, which again worked ideally during the test flight.”
Mount Airy-based NCFI, a division of Barnhardt Manufacturing Co., has numerous resources dedicated to NASA and ULA projects, but Orion is especially important to Tolbert and the company.
“We were on the space shuttle since its inception, and it was bittersweet to see the program retired,” he said. “But we've been on the Orion (project) for five years. It's the first spacecraft off the drawing board for NASA's new Space Launch System.
“We're thrilled to play a key role in the new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as it will eventually carry a crew of up to four astronauts beyond low earth orbit to the moon, asteroids and even Mars.”
The retired space shuttle program had been designed to cover 20 years, but it was extended for another 10 years before it was retired. NCFI was part of the program's 135 launch missions during that span.
When the company initially became part of the program, it supplied foam for the aft dome of the tank nearest the engines. Over time, it supplied a much greater percentage of the tank acreage, covering about 75 percent of the tank used for the text flight.
However, its work with NASA and ULA is not a big part of its overall volume, “but it is important to us, and a niche of which our entire organization is extremely proud,” said Chip Holton, named president of NCFI, effective Jan. 1. Holton replaces Steve Riddle, who has retired.
Holton said the company's heavy involvement in the space program “highlights our ability to supply a high-performance, unique customized product exacting in quality and supply.”
“NASA and Lockheed don't accept anything less,” he said. “The Supplier of Excellence Award we received in 2011 (from Lockheed Martin) means our mission in polyurethanes is a success.”
NCFI also has worked with the Department of Defense and Department of Energy on special projects as well as supplied products to many customers that, in turn, have worked on numerous government-owned facilities, Holton said.
“As long as the U.S. keeps going into space, and no matter where we go in the universe, NCFI will continue helping NASA get there,” he said.