Former auto supplier builds parts for Mars spaceship

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News
Top: Jason Robinson of Futuramic forms an intertank panel for the Space Launch System.

Warren— NASA’s first manned spaceship to Mars will be partially made in Michigan.

The government agency’s new Space Launch System — a rocket set to ferry humans to the red planet in the 2030s — relies on dozens of Michigan suppliers that build everything from steering to components covers for harnesses and cables. But the most vital contributor from the Great Lakes state has a history rooted in the automotive industry.

Warren-based Futuramic Tool & Engineering once made tooling that checked tolerances of body stampings for every single car in Ford Motor Co.’s lineup. But after the Dearborn automaker outsourced that work to Mexico about 15 years ago, the supplier was forced to diversify to the aerospace industry. It now makes tooling and hardware for the Mars-bound rocket.

“They’re working on every major component that’s being assembled,” said Chad Bryant, the Space Launch System’s propulsion manager. “You can’t walk though the plant without seeing Futuramic all around you.”

Futuramic has manufacturing plants in Detroit and Warren that build the parts. It ships those parts to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the rocket is being built. Futuramic works directly for Boeing, NASA’s prime supplier for the SLS — and for Lockheed Martin, NASA’s prime supplier for the Orion capsule, the part of the rocket that will hold the astronauts.

Among the parts it supplies are massive aluminum panels for the SLS’s intertank, a portion of the rocket’s core stage that connects the massive liquid hydrogen tank to the liquid oxygen tank. Those two fuel tanks hold 733,000 gallons of propellent that will push the SLS out of Earth’s orbit. The intertank also ties together the top of the two boosters that run along opposite sides of the rocket’s core, and houses electronics.

In total, the core stage will stand 212 feet tall and will weigh 2.3 million pounds.

Futuramic also builds thrust beams, the I-beam structures that hold the four engines in place. Those four engines will together produce up to 2 million pounds of thrust.

Other components the company builds for the rocket are: part of the Orion capsule in which the crew lives; pieces of the upper stage that will continue to power the spacecraft after the lower core-stage breaks away; simulators for testing the rocket before its first flight in 2018; tooling and scaffolding used to put it all together.

“The engineering diversity, their enthusiasm and the quality of the hardware they’ve provided have been just outstanding,” said Pat Whipps, NASA’s Space Launch System manager at Michoud. “They’re a prime teammate.”

Futuramic doesn’t divulge how much its contract is worth, but NASA has a $7 billion budget for the first SLS, which is scheduled to blast off from the Kennedy Space Station for its first test flight in 2018. That mission will be unmanned and is planned to travel some 40,000 miles past the moon before eventually returning to Earth. The first manned mission is tentatively scheduled for 2023, and NASA has plans for yearly launches — each powered by a new rocket — until the first humans embark for Mars sometime in the 2030s, pending continued congressional funding.

John Couch, Futuramic’s vice president, said the company took the job because it was sustainable and provided a new challenge.

“Everything is larger vs. a car, so we had to do some capital equipment and personnel investment,” Couch said. “It was a whole new learning curve. The standards are completely different; they’re way more strict. It took a couple years to get the ball rolling.”

Above: John Morris, 56, a fitter for Futuramic, works on a panel wing.

Shift to aerospace

If not for open-minded company executives, Futuramic may not be around today.

Futuramic was founded in 1955 by William Warner as a plastic mold shop with an office in Hamtramck. It moved to Warren shortly after.

The auto industry was a part of the company from its inception. Warner named it Futuramic after Oldsmobile’s Rocket 88 Futuramic model.

“He just liked the name,” said Couch, who is Warner’s grandson. Couch recently restored a black 1950 Rocket 88 and has it prominently displayed at the Warren plant.

In the 1990s, 90 percent of the company’s business was from Ford, with the remaining work split between General Motors and Chrysler. That’s until Ford outsourced the work south of the border to cut costs.

“That hurt us,” Couch said. “We put all our eggs in one basket. That was our fault.”

In 2000, the company employed about 200. After Ford’s Mexico move, that number fell to around 70. That’s until management decided to enter the aerospace industry. The company now employs 285 and does work for about 45 companies. In 2014, it expanded to Detroit with a 300,000-square-foot plant.

In addition to working on the NASA rocket, Futuramic works with Boeing on wing components for the 777 jet airliner, builds nose cones for fighter jets and is working on parts for the Dream Chaser, a reusable spacecraft that will resupply the International Space Station.

Couch said employees are most excited about working on the SLS. The company printed stickers and T-shirts with the phrase “Macomb to Mars” and the company was held up as a manufacturing success story by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during a recent campaign visit to the Warren plant.

“It’s a point of pride for the whole staff,” Couch said.

John Couch, Vice President of Futuramic talks about how they assemble a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Nose Cone F35 for the NASA space program.****This is for a story about Futuramic, a former auto supplier that is now building parts for a NASA spaceship to Mars. Get photos of the company's Detroit and Warren plants/workers building the spaceship components/etc. Detroit, Mi, October 14, 2016, (ClarenceTabb Jr./Detroit News)

Ferrari-like product

Boeing had many suppliers to choose from — firms from 42 of the 50 states are working on the SLS — but the aeronautics company chose Futuramic because of its track record.

“The experience they brought to the table brought out a very good product,” said Mark Nappi, manager of the rocket’s core stage development for Boeing. “We’re very pleased with the progress we’ve made.”

NASA said it plans to test the rocket in Mississippi next year before its first launch in 2018. Subsequent missions call for the SLS to gradually reach Mars to drop off equipment and other things necessary for habitats on the red planet.

The SLS will have the capability to carry hundreds of tons of cargo, more than five times the payload of its predecessor, the space shuttle.

“It’s the biggest, most powerful rocket and it gets us out farther than we’ve ever been before,” Bryant said. “The shuttle program was like driving a bus; the SLS is a Ferrari.”

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