Where Rockets are Born

There are different ways to say what United Launch Alliance’s 864 employees in Decatur do every day. Some might say that they use aluminum plates and stainless steel to build large metal silos that can fly and carry satellites into space.

Or you could say they build massive rockets, the largest of which — the Delta IV Heavy — weighs 1.7 million pounds fully loaded at takeoff, is 232 feet tall and 53 feet wide.

Or, you could say what they do is rocket science, because it is.

And you could say that there’s no place like it — because that’s true, too.

The United Launch Alliance plant in Decatur is a one-of-a-kind facility where virtually all of the rockets leaving the U.S. are born — whether they’re destined for the military or weather watching or other scientific missions.

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United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a 50-50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Co.  ULA was created in 2006 and is headquartered in Denver, but most of its manufacturing, assembly and integration operations are in Decatur. ULA launches are done at Cape Canaveral in Florida or at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

ULA has done nine launches so far this year and 75 since it was formed seven years ago. The Decatur plant makes Delta II, Delta IV and Atlas V rockets for U.S. government customers that include the Department of Defense, NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office and other organizations. Although Delta IV and Atlas V rockets can be modified by adding solid rocket fuel boosters, each rocket’s core design consists of a first stage and a second stage that holds the payload sent into space. The Delta IV Heavy consists of two first stage rockets strapped to the core booster rocket carrying the payload.

Workers make final processing checks on a Delta IV launch vehicle.

Atlas and Delta rockets are “evolving expendable launch vehicles, ” which means they are jettisoned after their fuel has been used. They have been in use for more than 50 years, carrying a variety of payloads including weather, telecommunications and national security satellites, as well as deep space and interplanetary exploration missions, according to ULA.

The Decatur facility builds about 12 rockets a year. At any given time, there are about 20 missions in process, and those missions will produce about 40 rocket boosters, second-stage rockets and payload fairings. ULA’s most recent launch was in September and was done with an Atlas V vehicle for a U.S. Air Force mission to “provide significantly improved global, highly secure, protected, survivable communications for all war-fighters serving U.S. national security, ” according to www.ulalaunch.com.

But it also provided the rockets for new GPS satellites, for weather monitoring and for the Mars Curiosity rover. If it’s going from the U.S. to space, it’s most likely starting in a ULA rocket.

ULA’s Decatur facility near the Tennessee River includes 35 acres under roof and 1.6 million feet of workspace.  The sprawling production floor is spotless, and the plant’s temperature is carefully controlled at 72° for quality-control purposes.  Production in the plant runs from north to south, with aluminum plates and stainless steel rolls entering one end of the facility and leaving the other end as a major stage of an Atlas V or Delta IV rocket. In between those points, the manufacturing process is a dazzling show of precision machine-milling, and mechanical shaping, welding and component assembly — with repeated testing along the way.

Depending on the size of the rocket configuration, the different stages are transported to the launch site by truck, ship or air cargo. The Delta IV Heavy’s 16.5-foot diameter makes it too large to transport by air or truck, so a 312-foot-long ship, the Delta Mariner, was built to ship its various components. Smaller Delta and Atlas rocket components can be flown in stages by air cargo, shipped or delivered by vehicle.

A key part of the Decatur facility’s operation is production of the first and second stages of Delta IV rockets and the first stage of Atlas V rockets, all of which are made from large aluminum plates that are machine-milled, shaped and then welded together to form the round booster sections. Some of the aluminum plates weigh as much as 9, 000 pounds when they arrive at the Decatur facility, yet as much as 90 percent of the plates are removed by machine milling. That transforms the plates into isogrid-design structures that are much lighter than the original aluminum plate but still strong enough to support the rigors of takeoff and flight.

“When it comes to building things, this is the greatest job around, ” says Daniel Caughran.

“The whole idea is to make the booster lighter without giving up its strength, ” says Daniel Caughran, ULA’s vice president of production operations.  “You don’t want to waste energy produced by the engine just to get the tank structure off the ground.”

The same idea holds for the second stage of the Atlas V rocket, which is made from stainless steel that’s as thin as 15/1, 000 of an inch. The Atlas V’s second stage, called the Centaur, is so thin that it’s like a lead balloon. Without pressure or other means of support, it will usually collapse on itself. But when it’s pressurized and full of fuel, “It’s like a can of soda, ” Caughran says.  “Unopened, it’s solid as a rock. But when you open that can, and lose the pressure, it can collapse very easily.”

Testing in the plant is paramount and continuous. After the aluminum panels have been machine milled, for example, strength and thickness are tested ultrasonically with literally tens of thousands of readings. Those tests and numerous others show that, “By the time we get ready to launch, we know we’re ready to go and the vehicle is going to fly, ” Caughran says.

A Delta IV launch vehicle is slated to carry NASA’s EFT-1 satellite into space in September of 2014, and the Decatur plant is already abuzz about that launch.

“The launch next year will be unmanned and will probably consist of a few orbits, ” Caughran says. “It will be testing the re-entry system. But it’s significant for the country, really, because it’s a step in getting the United States closer to launches with humans again and having human launch capabilities.”

Building rockets must be part of Caughran’s DNA. His father spent 32 years with Martin Marietta, working on various Titan rocket projects. At 21, Caughran followed those footsteps and went to work as a missile mechanic.

“That was my introduction to building rockets, ” Caughran says. “I went to work on the floor as a mechanic, and I had a few opportunities along the way.”

He earned several promotions and in 1992 was the manager of weld, assembly and test for Titan II and Titan IV launch vehicles. He joined Lockheed Space Systems after Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed and served in various high-level production management roles for Titan and Atlas vehicles.

Rockets in the making undergo tens of thousands of tests during the construction process. “By the time we get ready to launch, we know we’re ready to go and the vehicle is going to fly, ” says Daniel Caughran, ULA vice president for production operations. Here,  Jasen Albright operates a press on a Delta II launch vehicle.

He later served on the ULA site team that chose Decatur as the best site for the joint venture. In 2009, ULA began moving production of the Atlas V rocket from San Diego and Denver to Decatur. That consolidation was completed in 2011 and complemented ULA’s work already being done in Decatur on Delta rockets.

“From the very start of my exposure to this facility, I knew the right thing to do was to bring Delta and Atlas launch vehicles together in this facility, ” Caughran says.  “There’s no other facility like this in terms of capacity and capabilities, especially in the United States.”

In addition to its large work force in Decatur, ULA has 144 suppliers in Alabama that employ about 3, 100 people. ULA contributes $277 million annually to Alabama’s economy, according to company officials.

Caughran also has another way to describe the work at ULA in Decatur.

“When it comes to building things, this is the greatest job around, ” he says. He notes that ULA is committed to developing great talent to be future leaders of the joint venture. As part of that, it has developed excellent relationships with colleges and universities, especially Calhoun Community College, Athens State University and the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “We want this to be a great company today but a better company tomorrow, ” he says.

Charlie Ingram is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

text by Charlie Ingram • photos by david higginbotham

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