By Marilyn Odendahl, Truth Staff
ELKHART -- More than 35 years after the last astronauts walked on the moon, NASA is making plans to return to the celestial body and has enlisted the help of a local company.
To build a prototype of the Ares I rocket, the ship that is planned to carry crews back to the moon and possibly to Mars, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will use a friction stir welding machine designed and built by Transformation Technologies Inc., 112 Rush Court.
The company began drafting blueprints for the 35-foot tall, 90,000-pound welder about a year ago and just recently shipped the finished product to the NASA - Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
"We just love it," Tim Haynie, president of TTI, said of working on equipment for the space program. "We like this stuff."
The gigantic piece of equipment will be used to weld four sheets of aluminum alloy together to create the tanks which will hold the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen needed to fuel the rocket's J-2X main engine.
"When you're building equipment for the space agency, the part you're welding is usually much more valuable than the machine welding it," said Adam Koppy, lead mechanical engineer at TTI.
Friction stir welding (FSW) will forge the pieces of metal together, creating a bond that is stronger, lighter and more reliable than that made by traditional welding methods. The FSW process uses a rotating tool to heat the aluminum to a temperature to the point where it can be forged together without melting, Koppy said. Conversely, traditional welding usually melts aluminum which then leaves a cast as the metal cools.
Haynie knows the importance of having durable joints on vehicles that travel into outer space. Following the Challenger disaster in 1986, he was among the engineers who worked to replace the O-ring, the part blamed for the explosion, with a plasma weld.
He became intrigued with friction stir after reading about the welding process in a trade journal. The technique was developed in England in the early 1990s but has not gone mainstream, making TTI, Haynie said, one of only a handful of companies in the United States designing and building FSW machines.
His company, which he began as a consulting firm in 2000, now designs and builds friction stir welders for a variety of clients including airplane manufacturers and research institutions.
Building its first welder without having a buyer ready to purchase it, TTI has since made welders for Boeing to use to build its 787 cargo planes and for the Idaho National Laboratory to use in a research project that is studying ways to make nuclear fuel rods.
When finished, the welder that the Transformation Technologies team built for NASA filled the workshop and created a little awe, knowing this machine would weld equipment for the space ships.
"We went and did our own thing and built our reputation doing the small machines," Haynie said, "and lo and behold we're now doing the large machines like this for the NASA Ares program."