Reaching For The Moon

As NASA plans a return trip to the moon, these 2 Connecticut companies will help astronauts get there

Stephen Singer / Hartford Courant / 18 November 2019

As NASA ramps up for the first manned trip to the moon in more than 50 years, it has enlisted two Connecticut companies with roots in the state’s aerospace industry to pitch in.

The space agency’s “Tipping Point” solicitation awarded $2.6 million this fall to Skyre Inc. of East Hartford that will develop a system to make propellant from permanently frozen water at the moon’s poles. And it awarded $4 million to Infinity Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Inc. of Windsor, which will collaborate with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to develop a flexible power and energy product to reduce cost and improve reliability. The technology could be used for lunar rovers, surface equipment and habitats.

A technology is considered at a tipping point, NASA says, if an investment will significantly advance the technology, increase the likelihood it’ll be introduced into a commercial space application and bring the technology to market for government and commercial applications.

In all, NASA picked 14 U.S. companies with a combined award value of about $43.2 million. The investment in the U.S. space industry, including small businesses, will help bring the technologies to market and ready them for use by NASA, the space agency said.

“We want to stimulate the economy and make sure the emerging space sector actually takes off,” said LK Kubendran, program integration lead for external partnerships at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

NASA provides up to 90 percent of the cost, with large companies expected to contribute 25 percent, he said.

“You want to make sure companies have skin in the game,” Kubendran said.

NASA announced in September a contract for the Orion spacecraft production line to support as many as 12 Artemis missions, including one that will carry the first woman and next man to the moon by 2024. The agency awarded the Orion Production and Operations Contract to Lockheed Martin Corp.

Spacecraft production for the Orion program, managed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, will focus on reusability and building a sustainable presence on the lunar surface. NASA is ordering three Orion spacecraft for Artemis missions III through V for $2.7 billion and plans to order three more Orion capsules in 2022 for Artemis missions VI through VIII, at a cost of $1.9 billion.

Contributors to the construction of the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System rocket and Exploration Ground Systems program that will modernize NASA’s facilities at the Kennedy Space Center include 71 companies in Connecticut, according to NASA.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the work demonstrates NASA’s commitment to establishing a sustainable presence on the moon to “bring back new knowledge” and prepare for sending astronauts to Mars.

As daunting as a moon launch is, NASA’s eventual goal of a trek to Mars would require construction of a lunar base requiring self-sufficiency and the ability to develop the moon’s resources for the weekslong trip to the red planet.

Infinity Fuel Cell and Hydrogen is developing power for the mission, which must endure two-week-long nights and equally lengthy days. For example, fuel cells provide power on the moon’s night side, where solar power is useless, said Chief Executive Officer William Smith. “Power at any altitude” is the company’s motto.

Trent M. Molter, president and chief executive officer of Skyre, said ice from the moon’s polar caps will be thawed, creating water from which hydrogen and oxygen will be split, creating propellant used in the spacecraft.

Skyre, which Molter began in his garage nearly 13 years ago, will benefit in numerous ways from its NASA work, he said.

“It will be an important program for us in terms of dollars and in terms of the rigor and focus to bring this thing forward,” he said.

But there’s another advantage tied to the excitement associated with space travel.

“I was talking to an investor the other day,” Molter said. “He said, ‘Wow, you’re working with NASA. That’s so cool.’”

Smith said the anticipation of the first manned mission to the moon since the last visit by Apollo 17 in 1972 has made this an “interesting time in space history right now.”

NASA has not engaged in a “real focused activity” since the Space Station program in the late 1980s, and early 1990s, he said. Although the space agency has been “doing good work” — the Mars rover, for example — NASA has been “on idle,” Smith said.

People are getting energized all over, “NASA and the contractor community,” he said.

Private efforts such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are “helping the effort, too,” Smith said.

“The private sector is pushing NASA. NASA is delighted at being pushed,” he said.

NASA and U.S. military and space allies are pitching for aerospace companies to bid on potential contracts for the trip to the moon and the springboard to Mars. Connecticut, with its history that dates to the earliest years in aviation, has been home to many companies that switched gears and worked on the early Mercury and Apollo space programs of the 1960s.

Smith and Molter, for example, worked at United Technologies Corp., which has contributed the space suit, fuel cells and other technology to the U.S. space program.

Smith said exploration of space will benefit everyone.

“We all live under the same sun, see the same moon at night,” he said.

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