The Right Stuff: Indiana Is Building The Things To Carry Us To Mars

Rich Boling works in outer space.

A child of the 1970s and 1980s, Boling belongs to the last generation of Americans who grew up watching in awe as NASA regularly sent our men and women—many of them Hoosiers—riding on rockets beyond Earth’s exosphere and into infinity. It was a time when astronauts were the real-life superheroes flying through the sky; when boys and girls still dreamed of one day floating in zero gravity among the stars. Boling is living that dream, but it looks much different than imagined even a few short decades ago—somehow mundane and mind-blowing in equal measure.

First off, his space station is a commonplace two-story office building that squats along the main drag of Greenville, Indiana, a tiny town just north of Louisville. His spacesuit—khakis and a navy polo with a corporate logo on the breast—was built for a walk on the front nine, not one outside the International Space Station. In fact, the closest Boling has ever been to leaving the Earth’s atmosphere is the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner.

And yet for the past 19 years, Boling has worked on projects that are not only bound for the cosmos, but have shaped our understanding of how things work in outer space. He’s employed at Techshot Inc., which designs and builds payloads for transport to the ISS. The company is basically an interstellar UPS that adapts leading-edge technology to fit and operate in the harsh environs of a cramped spacecraft orbiting Earth in the vacuum of space.

As vice president in charge of corporate advancement and government relations, Boling helps coordinate with scientists and researchers to develop everything from special Tupperware that might change how plants are grown in space to a 3-D bioprinter that can manufacture human tissue—and one day possibly entire human organs—at zero-G in a contraption the size of a toaster oven. Then Boling and his colleagues work with the U.S. government and private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX to blast those inventions into orbit, where they will be tested aboard the ISS. “We have equipment on almost every cargo load that goes up,” Boling says. “We have a small office and a lab at Kennedy Space Center [in Florida]. But we’re not based in Houston or Cape Canaveral or Huntsville, Alabama. We’re in Indiana. And Indiana is a place where this tech thrives.”

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That Indiana steers a growing segment of the modern space economy may be surprising given the state is more associated with cornfields than asteroid fields. But from the moment President John F. Kennedy pledged to send Americans to the moon, Indiana’s skilled laborers, engineers, manufacturers, students, and scientists made pivotal contributions to putting a man there, the first of whom, not coincidentally, was Purdue University–trained Neil Armstrong. As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of that milestone in human achievement, visionaries have another horizon in their sights: Mars.

Like putting the first man on the moon, landing on the Red Planet will take plenty of green. But back in 1969, our federal government chasing the Soviets was more than happy to pay for it. In 2019, with NASA funding limited, privately owned companies are racing each other to finance the next generation of space exploration. More than just astronauts and scientists in lab coats, it’s going to take hard-hat-wearing machinists, laptop-toting engineers, and even khaki-clad communications specialists like Boling to get us back in the space game. And from South Bend to Evansville, Indiana, grows some of the best of all of the above.

“Everybody knows about Indiana’s astronauts,” says Dan Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), a trade organization for professionals who work in all facets of the industry, which will bring some of its 30,000 members to Indianapolis for a national conference in August. “What tends not to get discussed are the teams behind the astronauts and the science missions. All of these things necessary to build the space economy are created in Indiana.”

Morning dawns on a spring day in Florida. The canopy is solid blue, the air is calm, and the weather radar is clean for the duration of the launch window. The countdown has begun.

The year is 2023, and mission control inside the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral is a hive of scientists carefully running down lists, double-checking and triple-checking every last calculation. The same goes for the grounds crew outside going over every rivet in the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, NASA’s newest interplanetary spacecraft that sits on the launch pad poised toward the sky.

Today is the beginning of Orion’s first crewed mission, a quick lap around the moon. If that’s successful, the craft will return the following year to haul pieces of a small space station into lunar orbit. From there, the ship will be used to explore the moon and nearby asteroids and, one day, take humans to Mars.

Four astronauts are awaiting launch in Orion’s crew module—a cone, the infrastructure, and panels of which were milled and machined at Major Tool & Machine in downtown Indianapolis. On board, the crew flips and toggles any number of switches that were fabricated just down I-65 in Southport at JFW Industries. Outside the spacecraft, mechanics and technicians perform last-minute checks on the service module atop aerial lift platforms made at Lift-A-Loft Corporation in Muncie.

Ignition. At Mission Control’s command, four RS-25 rockets, also made at Major Tool, ignite, creating a massive rumble that puts stress on the craft’s nuts, bolts, screws, and rivets, some of which were forged at Indiana Aircraft Hardware in Fortville. Any potential damage that rattle might cause is being mitigated by vibration-damping materials from Damping Technologies in Mishawaka.

Photograph of a machine fashioning a steel cone for space travel.
At Major Tool & Machine, a cone panel for the Orion spacecraft takes shape.

By the time Orion returns safely to Earth, 13 other Hoosier companies will have done their part in making the mission a success. “There’s a perception that the Lockheeds and Grummans do it all on their own,” Dumbacher says. “There is a long supply chain that involves all 50 states. Indiana has a key part because it has the manufacturing background and the economic forces behind them.”

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Indiana ranks sixth in the nation in terms of overall manufacturing, producing $102.5 billion worth of goods in 2017, nearly 29 percent of the state’s total output. Manufacturing also accounts for 17 percent of our total workforce, the highest such rate in the U.S. We’re not just making the big-ticket airplane engines and automotive parts that obviously overlap with space propulsion and mobility, but we also produce the subtler, not-so-obvious things like metal, metal fabrication, machinery, rubber and plastics, and computer and electronic components that can be used onboard and in ground operations. No manufacturing company is dedicated solely to space exploration (which is why it’s difficult to isolate economic indicators like jobs and dollars stemming directly from the aerospace industry), and nobody in the space business makes everything. But as a state, Indiana is about as close as it comes to a one-stop shop for space manufacturing. And as an added bonus, because we’re in the Midwest, we can do it all cheaper than the competition near the coasts. “We relocated Determine Inc. to Carmel from Silicon Valley because we knew they would need to manufacture,” says Bob Fagan, founder of Indy’s BJMR Technical Consulting, which works with private aerospace clients. “You don’t manufacture heavy metal in Silicon Valley—it costs too much.”

Still, the state’s major contribution remains talent. Forget the fact that 12 astronauts were born here—Indiana is home to more than 34,000 engineers, 46 percent more than the national average, and our universities are churning out more every year. The aerospace engineering program at Purdue is renowned, consistently ranked among the top schools in the country, while Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute is tied for first in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of engineering programs that don’t offer doctorates.

Men stand on a factory floor.
The team at Major Tool & Machine in Indianapolis built Orion’s engine nozzle, capable of 512,000 pounds of thrust.

Opportunity also abounds for Hoosiers without a four-year college degree. In fact, in the Midwest, there is actually a shortage of skilled workers. The Manufacturing Institute released a report late last year that estimated 2.4 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled over the next decade. The Indiana Economic Development Corporation says that by 2025, this state alone might be short as many as 1 million skilled tradespeople, especially as longtime employees retire. Our tech schools, such as Ivy Tech and Vincennes University, help to bridge that skills gap. But recently, companies have taken it upon themselves to go out into primary schools, especially in rural areas, and recruit their future workforce.

Major Tool & Machine is one such employer. On its sprawling 600,000-square-foot Hillside neighborhood campus, the same facilities where the Orion rockets and crew module were built, the company has dedicated half of an entire structure, Building 4U, to classrooms and workshops. They’ve brought on two full-time on-staff instructors to give busloads of young men and women hands-on training in welding and machining. Major Tool also sends representatives out into communities, urban and rural, to let young adults know opportunity is out there. “Not every person understands that there are alternatives to college,” says Kevin Bowling, senior vice president at Major Tool. “Not everyone knows that they can earn a very good living in manufacturing. We engage at the high school and even middle school level to provide information for these kids to make the decision to be in manufacturing. We see it as a necessary investment to make sure we’re strong for the years to come.”

The Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust Exhibition is located just inside the Rolls-Royce building on South Meridian Street in Indianapolis. Here, sunlight flows through tall windows on meticulously maintained exhibits that, piece by piece, tell the story of the Allison Engine Company, which was absorbed by Rolls in 1995.

James A. Allison was one of the four principals of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909, and he built and raced cars with and against cofounder Carl Fisher at the new 2.5-mile oval. To build, service, and modify those proto–hot rods, Allison opened a shop in Speedway that eventually grew into the Allison Engine Company. During this time, Indy was the world’s Motor City, with more than 60 car manufacturers cranking out Stutzes, Duesenbergs, Merzes, and Monroes. This glut of opportunity attracted the world’s finest engineers, machinists, mechanics, and technicians to the city. The wealthy Allison had his pick of talent.

A black and white photo of an oval-shaped titanium fuel tank.
The original Lunar Module propellant tank showcased what Allison Engine Company could do with titanium in the 1960s.

But before long, Allison decided to give his business a lift. As aviation became the national craze, the industrialist saw the potential and opportunity of shifting toward bigger and more powerful airplane engines—and the Allison Co.’s (and by extension Rolls-Royce’s) century in that trade is what most of the exhibits in the museum are dedicated to. Here is the revolutionary V-12 Liberty engine, made with Allison-designed lead bearings, that lifted British Airco bombers during WWI. There is the hulking Allison V-3420, liquid-cooled to help keep planes like the XB-39 Superfortress aloft during WWII. AE2100 turboprops that powered the Super Hercules military transport sit alongside the AE3007 turbofan that still flies smaller jets today.

But something’s missing in the lineage. Somewhere, right around the late 1950s, there should be a branch in the artifact timeline. That tangent is hidden away in an industrial park out by the airport on the west side of town. The single-story building has no windows or signage, just a long wall of gray concrete with one glass door and a suite number. Through the unmanned reception area, past the framed black-and-white panoramic group photo of the entire Allison crew posing in front of the Speedway factory circa 1921, and beyond the office area cluttered with stacks of binders and folders, there is a high-ceilinged warehouse. Behind a gaggle of retired engineers and machinists draining the oil from an old car engine hanging from a shop crane sits a shiny five-foot, rounded cylinder that looks like a squished ball of rainbow-colored metal. Years ago, this hunk of titanium was found half-buried as garden art outside a private home in California—a strange place to find something that was built to land on the moon.

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When President Kennedy directed the Space Race with the Soviets toward the moon in his famous 1961 address to Congress, Allison (by then a division of General Motors) was already building rocket motor fuel tanks for Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles. So when, in 1963, the five-year-old NASA decided it needed special titanium tanks for the Apollo Command Support Module (CSM) that orbited the moon and the Lunar Module (LM) fuel and oxidizer that actually landed on the surface, Allison was a natural choice.

Titanium is unique in its durability despite low density, and it’s lightweight, especially when compared to its predecessor, steel. It’s also extraordinarily resistant to severe temperatures and corrosion. This made it the ideal material for carrying the massive amounts of fuel that would be needed to make the journey to the moon. But those same properties made titanium difficult to weld, particularly in the 1960s, when such use of the element was relatively new. With its institutional know-how, Allison was up to the task. “Our titanium welders were some of the best in the country,” says Phil Cagle, retired engineering director at Rolls and the current president of the museum. “And we’d been drawing engineers from all around the Midwest, including Purdue and Rose-Hulman. Along with that Midwest work ethic, we get it done.”

A sketch of a lunar spacecraft.
Rendering of a Lunar Module diagram featuring Allison Engine Company tanks.

Indianapolis technicians built 142 CSM tanks and 82 LM tanks for the Apollo program, including four that sat beneath the crew of Apollo 11 and several others that helped the troubled crew of Apollo 13 make it home. Twenty-eight of those tanks remain on the moon. The rest were jettisoned or burnt up upon reentry. When NASA prematurely ended the Apollo program due to funding in 1972, the unused surplus of tanks was sold for scrap, or in this case, buried in the California dirt.

Still, Allison kept at least one eye on the stars. In the intervening years, the company has worked with NASA in numerous capacities. Not long after Apollo, they developed and built a Fresnel Mirror, which produced solar energy for an unmanned space flight. They’ve worked with NASA on varying research issues, from how to reduce fuel-burn rates to how to protect from degradation due to ingesting volcanic ash. They’ve done ground testing for various rocket engines. And the details of much of Rolls-Royce’s ongoing and imminent government work are classified.

But along the way, Cagle has noticed that his company is no longer alone in Indiana when it comes to working in space. “These [concentrations of industry] build upon themselves,” he says. “None of this stuff could be pulled off by a singular department of a company. It takes engineers, logistics. It creates an entire industry. Here and throughout the Midwest, that infrastructure has been honed. We can pull off amazing things.”

For the moment, Cagle’s job is to prepare one of the old Apollo tanks—for decades a titanium yard ornament that collected dust in storage—for a trip up to the Indiana State Museum, where it will be on prominent display to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s triumphant landing.

Humanity’s small steps into the universe have never been so popular as they were on that night in July 1969. Launches stopped being must-see TV in the 1980s, and for decades after, the only time we’d hear about NASA was when something went wrong or funding was cut. Our dreams of interstellar travel were returned to the realm of fantasy fiction and sci-fi entertainment. But every so often, something happens to spark public interest in space. NASA’s Curiosity Rover periodically transmitted breathtaking panoramas of the Mars surface, which were tweeted out to more than 4 million followers. In April, scientists revealed a pixelated image of a black hole, the first-ever photograph of the previously theoretical anomaly, processed using an algorithm created by Katie Bouman, a 29-year-old computer scientist from West Lafayette.

But when the public imagination finally returns to manned space exploration, it will find an industry in a historic state of flux. From NASA’s inception in 1958, the U.S. space program had been a federal enterprise. The more than 400,000 engineers, scientists, technicians, and support specialists from 20,000 different companies and universities who worked on the Apollo program were all government contractors. But when President George W. Bush announced in 2004 that the shuttle program would be retired by 2010, he effectively invited private companies to pick up where NASA left off in terms of getting people into space. The agency was still going to tackle the big challenges of deep-space research and exploration, but it was now up to the free market to drive innovation and new technology.

A three rocket spacecraft lifts off with tremendous thrust.
Launch of Orion Spacecraft

“I compare where the space industry is now to the aviation industry of the 1930s and 1940s,” says the AIAA’s Dumbacher. “It was the government research on propulsion that led to the commercial aviation market we have today. Space industry is in the nascent stages of something very similar. The question now is: How can I go make money out of this? We haven’t found that pot of gold yet. But we’re trying to get the infrastructure in place.”

Some companies have found early interest and even success in the private launching business. “That has grown to some extent,” says Fagan of BJMR Technical Consulting. “There are more players—everyone thinks they need a satellite and GPS systems. The other thing that has happened is that companies have started a space-tourism component. They believe there’s a business out there where they can take people and give them a near-orbit environment and that people will pay for that.”

In 2017, private investors, including 120 venture capital firms, infused $3.9 billion into the commercial space industry. Space Angels private financial firm reported that of the 303 commercial space companies that benefited, only 60 were from the field of launch and lander vehicles. That’s a big stretch of horizon left to be filled by the imaginations of businesspeople and entrepreneurs with the courage and capital to experiment with new business models in outer space. The theory is that innovation will fuel exploration.

That’s certainly the case in Greenville with Techshot. The company was founded by John Vellinger, who as an Indiana eighth-grader entered a NASA-sponsored science fair by examining what would happen if you put chicken embryos in space. The idea caught the attention of the space agency, and by the time Vellinger was a freshman mechanical-engineering student at Purdue, NASA was ready to actually try it out. The first egg incubator he designed, called “Chix in Space,” was sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken and was actually onboard the doomed shuttle Challenger when it exploded on January 28, 1986. Vellinger got a second chance three years later, and the experiment was a success. The process sparked a model for a business, and along with a former KFC engineer, Vellinger hatched Techshot in 1989.

Today, Techshot’s engineers work with researchers from private companies, various universities, NASA, and the U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratories to design equipment for experimentation in space. They are the ultimate intermediaries, who talk to scientists about the theories they want to prove or disprove, use that data to essentially invent and modify compact machines that will perform those experiments in the cramped confines of the ISS, coordinate the launch and delivery of said payload with the private launch companies, and then link up with the space station via a live video feed to walk the astronauts through instructions on how to operate the devices—all of this happening in a two-story office building so inconspicuous that when it first opened, townspeople would wander in looking to deposit checks.

Past projects have included a microwave-sized bone densitometer that measures bone loss in mice living in zero-G to look for clues about how to stem the effects of the deterioration of astronauts’ bodies, a tiny multi-use centrifuge that has recently been testing different types of cement and how they might behave on the surface of extraterrestrial bodies like the moon and Mars, and one of their most recent inventions, a “FabLab” 3-D printer that can create metal, plastic, ceramic, and electronic objects in space.

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All of these things would obviously come in handy during a prolonged deep-space mission. But while we wait for those epic voyages to get off the ground, there’s little return on these investments. The government can afford to wait and work in the red to play the long game. Private investors, on the other hand, tend to demand more instant gratification. They want an answer to the question: What can space do for me now, here on Earth?

Image of the Martian planet

“To be honest, we have not found the true business case yet,” says Dumbacher. “I can’t point to something on the moon that is an economic driver. What are we going to find up there that we can utilize from an economic perspective?” While the space barons wait to strike proverbial oil on Mars, Dumbacher says he believes the answer might be finding ways to make Earth necessities better and cheaper in space than we can down here.

Boling and Techshot may have already figured that out. One of the newest payloads destined for ISS is a 3-D BioFabrication Facility (BFF). It’s essentially a printer for soft human tissue. They’ve been bioprinting bone and cartilage for years on Earth, but muscle tissue has been trickier to replicate. When trying to recreate cardiac tissue in our gravity, the gelatinous and fluid-like biomaterials that comprise that tissue usually collapse under their own weight, resulting in little more than a puddle of goo. In zero-G, however, those materials tend to maintain their shape and integrity. If this newly produced cardiac tissue can be conditioned—essentially hardened—to withstand reentry into our atmosphere, the BFF might be the key to creating fully functional artificial hearts and other organs. The backlog of 114,000 people waiting on transplant lists would be reduced or eliminated. Patients could receive organs made from their own stem cells, cutting down the likelihood of body rejection, and no one would have to die for someone to get the replacement they need. “The technology holds such promise for people on Earth,” says Boling. “Anyone could benefit.”

The tech may one day save lives here. But if successful, the BFF might leave an even greater legacy. Once investors realize that space is the key to mass-producing things consumers want or need but can’t replicate down here—like, say, a human heart—the market is bound to explode. “A lot of people don’t even know there’s a space station up there,” says Boling. “Now everyone has money to spend on the research that the station was meant for.”

In short, a breakthrough like the BFF could prove to potential investors that there’s money to be made in space. And that investment will only drive further exploration. The Space Race started as a battle between two ideologies—capitalism and Communism. But today, the free market alone must find a way to inspire mankind’s next leap forward. In that race, Indiana has the jump.