Insider Exclusive: America’s ‘Booster Belt’ – Part One
IUKA, Miss. — We only knew that we were traveling to see where rocket components and rockets were made – and little else. SpaceFlight Insider photographer, Vikash Mahadeo, who accompanied me on our week-long foray to several rocket manufacturing facilities along with myself were as prepared as we could be – but we had no idea what to expect. What followed was an experience that would redefine the way we looked at space flight.
When one thinks of space, locations such as Cape Canaveral and Houston spring to mind. Iuka, Mississippi – likely does not top, or even appear on that list. However, Iuka is where Orbital ATK produces the composite components for the Antares, Atlas V, Delta IV, Minotaur and Pegasus rockets – so, perhaps it should be given greater consideration.
With a population just shy of 3,000, Iuka is the county seat of Tishomingo County, Mississippi and Woodall Mountain, the highest point in Mississippi, is located just south of Iuka.
We had thought we would be interviewing individuals wearing lab coats, with pocket protectors and horned-rimmed glasses. We were also excited as our tour of Iuka’s facilities provided us with the opportunity to fly Vikash’s drone in a very secure facility.
Thanks, in part, to the misdeeds of some who have abused the privilege of media access gaining approval to do this – was no small feat. It afforded us the opportunity to use another tool in our effort to tell the story in as interesting a fashion as possible. As Vikash is an FAA-licensed drone pilot – I felt comfortable in his skills.
The engineers in the lab coats never appeared.
What we got instead were individuals wearing jeans, t-shirts and baseball caps – everyday Americans. John Kain, Orbital ATK’s Operations Director at its Iuka facility, was our tour guide through the Iuka facilities, has a deep southern accent. However, when he spoke, it became clear that how someone pronounces their words – has nothing to do with the knowledge and skills they bring to bear.
With Dexy’s Midnight Runners ‘Come on Eileen’ playing in the background, it would have been easy to forget that we were in a facility that produces highly-complex rocket components. Then one sees pathways of laser light etched out on the surface of an Antares payload fairing and reality once again sets in.
Besides the massive autoclave that is used to bake the composite components, the custom-made (per mission) parts that are manufactured at Iuka and the sophisticated equipment required, at the end of the day – it was the people we met at Iuka that stood out.
One would be forgiven for thinking that this was an automotive facility, what with the fact that the tracking system is based off of an automotive model and that the individuals who work here appear and behave as those at typical car and truck manufacturing facilities.
“We apply some of the concepts of lean manufacturing that are used in the automotive industry production system basics, to the space and low production rate environment that we operate in,” Kain told SpaceFlight Insider. “This allows us to monitor how the part is moving through the facility, we look at tooling, work instructions – all the different things that have to be in place to make sure that the process is starting well.”
Our tour proceeded and we noted the vast array of rocket components and machines required to produce them. We were stopped in our tracks as a boat tail, one of the segments of the Atlas V rocket was wheeled past us.
After being allowed to fly the drone into the autoclave and through the massive 320,000-square-foot facility’s corridors we became more accustomed to the tone of the place we got used to the attitudes of those around us, their self-deprecating humor and we became more at ease with our surroundings. It turned out that the autoclave was just one part of a process used to produce the composite structures at the facility.
“The autoclave is where we use temperature, vacuum and pressure to cure the part on the mandrel,” Kain said. “The part goes into this pressure vessel where we finish up working on that particular part.”
When asked about our business cards, I noted that I only had one left and made a crack about the person who was able to read should get it. I was instantly embarrassed. I come from a military background with a bit of law enforcement thrown in as well. To say I’m blunt and my sense of humor isn’t “PC” would be an understatement. I worried I might have offended someone.
I needn’t have bothered.
It was at that point that one of the workers leaned in and asked, “You know how they know the toothbrush was invented in Mississippi?” I blinked and said I didn’t know why. The reply would assure me that these weren’t snowflakes who couldn’t handle a little ribbing, “Because if it had been invented anywhere else it would have been called the teethbrush.”
A joke. Something so simple, so human and it was made by a rocket scientist. I had become too accustomed to working around individuals in three piece suits who rarely, if ever, told jokes.
It occurred to me that the executives in their suits, the space enthusiasts, heck even Vikash, myself and other folks in the media who followed space – we owed our positions to the launch vehicles that we would be seeing produced throughout the course of this week. Most of the space workers that we would meet work in relative anonymity, but we owe them a great deal.
It was then, finally, at the end of our first day, that we had the answer to what we would work to convey from our week-long journey. We’d work to detail how the people who produce the rockets are just that – people.
We also decided that a name given to the general geographical location we would be touring this week, the Bible Belt, was not an apt name. The people in Mississippi, and Alabama are not focused solely on religion, they, are just like people everywhere else, with as diverse an array of interests as other regions. We now had a plan for touring what we decided to call “the Booster Belt,” but were concerned, what if Iuka was different, an anomaly? Time would tell.
Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider
The views expressed within this article are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily, reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.