Elkton factory's products part of Mars mission

Workers at ATK plant proud to contribute to exploration of red planet

April 20, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

ELKTON -- If everything goes as planned, Mike Lara's name, along with the signatures of a couple dozen other Harford and Cecil County residents, will be landing softly on Mars early next year.

Lara, who lives in Elkton, is director of business development at ATK Elkton LLC, a rocket motor manufacturing plant on U.S. 40, just a few miles outside this Cecil County town.

Workers at the plant -- which not long ago was slated to close -- produced key parts for the two Mars Exploration Rover spacecraft that are scheduled to be launched to the red planet next month and in June.

"One of the things we did here," Lara said, "was to make the gas generators that will inflate large airbags -- similar to those used in cars -- that will cushion the rovers' landing on the surface of Mars."

"The airbags were made by ILC Dover Corp. in Dover, Del., and they let a large number of us sign our names on the bags" before they were shipped to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Lara explained that the plant here also made small rockets designed to slow the spacecraft as they near the Mars surface. Other small rockets will be used to keep the spacecraft on course as they encounter the strong winds on Mars during their descent to the surface.

The twin 300-pound, six-wheeled robot rovers, each a little smaller than a golf cart, are to explore the surface for interesting rocks and the possibility of water.

Early into their 310 million-mile odyssey, the spacecraft will depend on another ATK Elkton rocket to accomplish their mission. A STAR 48 rocket will serve as the third stage of the Boeing Delta II launch vehicle. It will provide the kick needed for the spacecraft to break away from Earth's gravitation and begin their flight to Mars.

"It's one of our biggest motors," Lara said of the 48-inch diameter, 80-inch long, 4,720- pound rocket that will serve as the third stage for the Boeing Delta II launch vehicle.

ATK Elkton workers who will be cheering the flights of the two spacecraft as they race to the surface of Mars are currently celebrating the 55-year-old factory's new lease on life.

"This facility was slated to close," Lara said.

The threat developed when ATK (Alliant Techsystems), a large Edina, Minn.-based aerospace company, acquired the former Thiokol Corp. plant here in April 2001.

According to Lara, the plan was to close operation here and shift all production to ATK Tactical Systems Co., an ATK unit in Rocket Center, W.Va., across the Potomac River from Cumberland.

But that move has since been thwarted, thanks in part to a complex business retention financial incentive being prepared by the state and Cecil County.

"This was as exciting as it gets," James L. Henry, managing director of financing programs at the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said of the successful effort to keep the rocket plant in Cecil County. "It was a tremendous win for the state, for the county and for workers at the plant."

Henry said the incentive package includes a $200,000 work force training grant that the company will not have to repay if its retains 340 workers.

There are also state and federal tax credits linked to the amount of research and development work done at the plant.

The most complex part of the package involves the Maryland Economic Development Corp.'s (MEDCO) purchase of sophisticated aerospace equipment and then leasing it back to ATK Elkton.

Under this part of the package, which is still being negotiated, MEDCO will spend up to $4 million on equipment, including a high-altitude test chamber, that can be used by workers at the plant to test how their rockets would perform in the vacuum of space.

Hans Mayer, executive director of MEDCO, said the equipment would allow the plant to test its own rocket motors and generate more business by doing contract work for other aerospace companies.

W. Paul Gilbert, director of the Cecil County economic development office, said the county has offered a tax break that amounts to about $40,000 a year.

"I don't think Elkton realizes how close we came to losing the former Thiokol plant," Nelson K. Bolender, president of the Cecil County Board of Commissioners, said when the board approved the incentive package. "That would have been a big company to lose."

Gilbert said the plant, which employs nearly 400 workers, has an annual payroll of $22 million.

He told the county commissioners that the loss of ATK Elkton would have resulted in the elimination of another 200 jobs at companies in the county that support the rocket factory.

The components for the Mars Explorer craft are just the plant's latest contribution to the nation's space program.

"We have had a number of firsts over the years," Lara said. "We were involved in the first soft landing on the moon. We were involved in the first object to leave the solar system, the Pioneer spacecraft launched in 1972."

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