Expanded space program is good for business in Md.

Base on moon, expedition to Mars could benefit bevy of area contractors

January 10, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

President Bush's proposal to send humans to Mars is potentially good news for an unlikely place - Maryland, the stealth space state.

Florida might have the flashy shuttle launches, but a surprisingly large number of aerospace contractors and scientists quietly ply their trade in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs. An ambitious goal to send people farther into space than they've ever gone before is music to their ears and, potentially, money in their pockets.

Lockheed Martin, which produced the heat shields for the unmanned Spirit Mars rover, is headquartered in Bethesda. Northrop Grumman's Linthicum-based electronics systems sector handles spaceborne payload and processing systems. A bevy of smaller NASA contractors clusters around the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. Johns Hopkins University scientists are tackling the health challenges of a long flight, from radiation to cabin fever.

Never mind that the details - and contracts - are far off: "We can't help but be involved," said Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, himself a former employee of a NASA contractor.

Chances are the work will be the same behind-the-scenes effort Maryland companies and researchers have always put into the trips away from Earth. Goddard focuses on unmanned flights, necessary before humans sally to the Red Planet.

Tom O'Brien, a spokesman for the Beltsville-based Swales Aerospace Inc., fully expects support work for a Mars attempt will be done at Goddard and the local companies that orbit it like satellites.

"There is a huge aerospace industry in this area," said Ron Estes, vice president of operations for the Maryland Space Business Roundtable and chief operating officer of a Goddard contractor. "While we may not be at the front of the manned programs, we certainly do underpin all of that with the technology and the science."

ATK Elkton, an aerospace and defense supplier, has had its hand in many space projects and doesn't intend to stop now. Four hundred rocket scientists work on the sprawling 500-acre campus in Cecil County, designing, manufacturing and testing rocket motors that were used during the first soft landing on the moon, on every Apollo flight and on the Mars rover.

Mike Lara, director of business development at ATK Elkton, had heard rumors about a new mission to Mars. The news that President Bush intends to announce details next week is exciting stuff for the company.

"It's encouraging to see that they're talking about budget increases to support the challenge," Lara said. "This has got to be looked at as a very positive thing for the Maryland job outlook."

Johns Hopkins has been working steadily for several years on problems that have to be solved before anyone heads off to Mars. It's one of a dozen institutions in the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, formed in 1997 through a NASA competition.

Hopkins medical researchers are studying the physical and psychological challenges of being cooped up with other people in a small area for several years.

Scientists at the university's Applied Physics Laboratory in North Laurel are measuring the radiation environment - there's concern that long exposure to the neutron radiation of space could cause cancer - and several other nasty effects of being outside Earth's atmosphere.

"Astronauts can lose 1 percent of their bone mass a month, whereas a postmenopausal woman might lose 1 percent a year," said Harry Charles, an APL department head and a team leader for the biomedical research institute. "There's all types of health issues associated with long-term space flight. ... [Now that] we're about to hear right from the president that we actually are going to Mars in the foreseeable future, these projects get even more important."

It's encouraging news for the researchers. "Obviously we're anticipating there will be increased emphasis and maybe funding opportunities," he said.

George Sauble, a vice president at Omitron Inc. of Beltsville, which is developing spacecraft control centers, expects the mission will re-energize people working in the industry here and nationwide.

"This is something that will rekindle the interest in the program, and it needs something like that after the Columbia incident last year," he said, of the shuttle disaster that killed all seven astronauts aboard.

The big contractors, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, are wary of talking about how they might benefit when the president hasn't even made the official announcement, let alone put projects out for bid. But they're happy to point out their long involvement with NASA.

That lunar camera used on Apollo 11 to televise man's first steps on the moon? That was made here in Maryland by Westinghouse - now Northrop Grumman.

The new plans for an orbital space plane to act as an astronaut lifeboat? Lockheed Martin's on the job.

"We've supported the space programs for 45 years now," said Meghan Mariman, a Lockheed spokeswoman.

Bill Guion, a retired Goddard systems engineering director who now works for a Greenbelt contractor, is simply excited to see a new national goal after years of competing smaller agendas about space.

He joined NASA in 1963, after President John F. Kennedy vowed that Americans would land on the moon by the end of the decade. The get-it-done atmosphere was thrilling, and he'd like to recapture that.

"If the population at large gets behind this and says, `Yeah, let's do it,'" Guion said, "then I think things are going to go back to the way they were in the '60s."

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