A Space & Missile Giant’s 51st Year in Alabama

Boeing Co. bases two of its corporate enterprises in Alabama — space and missiles — and its 2, 550 Alabama employees make it the state’s largest aerospace company.

Jim Chilton, who has headed up each of Boeing’s two Alabama divisions, gives us an overview of the company’s operations in Alabama.

Chilton is vice president and general manager of Boeing Strategic Missile & Defense Systems, located in Huntsville. He’s been in the job since February, moving from the post of vice president and program manager of Boeing Space Launch System, also based in Huntsville. He was named to that job in 2006.

Boeing’s space division was the first to set up shop in Alabama, 51 years ago, contracted with NASA to help develop the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo program.

Straight out of college I started as a rocket engine development engineer, at Rocketdyne. I very quickly found myself working with space shuttle main engines.

- Sponsor -

The brunt of the experience of space shuttle cessation was felt by the contractors. In actual contractor jobs, that’s been huge. For Boeing, however, we have more people in Huntsville working with the space launch systems than were working with the shuttle, so for us that transition has been a positive experience.

That the cessation of the shuttle is not looking like a lull in operations would really surprise people. Boeing quickly began hiring talent that could go beyond the step of developing and maintaining the shuttle. Boeing started with rocket engine development and ended up with the space shuttle and was a launcher of both the international space station and the Delta IV propulsion systems.

When they knew they were going to park the shuttle, that’s when they asked me to come to Huntsville and work on the next generation of space systems. Boeing started building what they were calling Ares — that generation of launchers after the shuttle — seven years ago, when I moved here.

Ares was canceled in 2010, but we kept a contract calling for us to help devise the best course beyond earth orbit. We took our Ares experience and applied it to heavy lift space launch systems.

When you look across the Boeing Co., you have 170, 000 people doing a variety of work at big production centers like Seattle, St. Louis and southern California. But the kind of work they’ve chosen to put in Alabama, we’re really proud of — involving between 2, 300 to 3, 000 employees over 50 years. In ’62, they very quickly became a major designer, builder and integrator of the first Apollo rocket. We ended up with a large presence here, and when Apollo took a dip, we didn’t leave but started placing other work here, knowing that we had a great workforce here and great support from local governments.

In the ’80s when the space station was in development, the company made a large investment in the Jetplex. It was there and at the Marshall Space Flight Center that the habitat module was built, here in Alabama, and it took a big capital commitment to do that. The Jetplex was also where Boeing developed the Avenger air defense system for the Army, which first played a vital combat role in the
Gulf War.

In the ’90s, when the nation needed a new rocket fleet, the Delta IV, Boeing dropped a few billion into the facility in Decatur, where we are now a part of a joint venture.

These were programs of national importance, and Boeing chose them to be led from Alabama. And when it emerged that there was a threat from the Korean peninsula and other rogue nations with the capability to lob a missile strike at one of our cities, for the U.S. not to be subject to geopolitical blackmail, it took a national commitment on the order of the Apollo program. And we took the best of the industry team led by Boeing and put it in Huntsville, and in five years, we had interceptors in Alaska. And now there are 25 to 30 on alert, and that was created in Alabama. All of those interceptors were engineered and integrated at our Jetplex. That missile defense work is the most recent expression of Boeing’s commitment in Alabama. We are not designing it in California but employing 800 to 900 workers in Alabama who are doing that.

The nation’s Ballistic Missile Defense System is now deployed. The first operational interceptors were deployed in 2005, and in 2009 and 2010 we built out our fleet to from 25 to 30 missiles, located at Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California. Those are in place and on hot alert connected to NORCOM, protecting us 24-7, 365.

The evolution of the system is to continuously improve it. There is a series of upgrades in progress at all times — all responsive to new threats and the obsolescence that goes on with aerospace design. In February, the new secretary of defense declared we would expand the interceptor fleet by 14, going from 30 to 44 and improving it along the way.

This is the U.S.’s ground-based midcourse defense system. It is combined with our forward deployment, which is the Army’s PAC-3 (missile seekers made by Boeing in Huntsville) and the (Navy-based) Aegis Standard Missile-3 (made by Raytheon in Huntsville).

Without a doubt, the missile defense system is completely funded by the federal budget, and that has been in decline. Right now, the government is not driving a bunch of new starts on the scale of the GMD (ground-based midcourse defense system). For Boeing, the closest thing to that is the space launch, which is between preliminary and critical design stage, which happens next summer.

From a missile and defense perspective, there is a lot of work in upgrades, a lot of innovation applying to foreign military sales and the U.S. Army, which is adding lasers, for a product called the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, to counter rocket and mortar activity, and we will package that into something that could be deployed and tested at White Sands.

The mature products (ground-based midcourse defense missiles) are subject to more testing, but the PAC-3 results have been unparalleled. The Aegis is subject to testing and has done fantastic, and the Avenger works great. The GMD: We have those in place because there is the capability of evolution while we have them in the ground.

The way these are being tested and engineered, we are embarked on a path to make them better, spotting upgrades and engineering programs coming out of early test problems, and then testing for the final fix. We’ve been in that loop of capability evolutions. We are heading for a flight test next spring. In January, we had a great flight test, and at this point we are about three for four (successful tests) on that configuration, and our next test is the first test of the upgrades.

I don’t think the average Alabama citizen is aware of the impact of Boeing’s spending half a billion dollars a year with suppliers in Alabama — an annual billion-and-a-half dollar impact — or the impact of the employees who contribute $2 million to $2.5 million a year in charitable contributions to the community, which we match. I’m from the Northwest, where the company has a lot of presence. We’d like your readers to know we plan to stay. And even after Airbus is done building what they will build in Alabama, we will still be the largest aerospace company in Alabama, and we aim to stay.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama

Interview by Chris McFadyen

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox