Brock Howe watched intently, hands on hips, head nodding, as the aluminum shipping container was slowly cranked closed.
With the final crank, it kissed the top of the airlock he’d spent five years ushering from concept to this NASA-approved product now tucked inside two protective layers of bubblegum-pink plastic.
FedEx would soon truck the dome-shaped airlock 1,000 miles to Florida, where it’s set to launch Nov. 15 to the International Space Station. It will become a door, of sorts, for satellites and experiments to exit the orbiting outpost.
On HoustonChronicle.com: NanoRacks, commercial space industry march ahead with space station airlock
But first, it must survive Interstate 10.
Airlocks tend to conjure up images of science fiction movies. Astronauts step inside a room with two doors, put on a suit and, after waiting a few minutes, exit for the vast vacuum of space. The dome-shaped Bishop Airlock, however, will operate differently. Instead of two doors, it has a circular opening that will attach to the space station.
When attached, the airlock will be pressurized and astronauts can fill it with satellites (ranging from the size of a loaf of bread to a refrigerator) to be deployed. They can also secure projects and experiments to the airlock to give them exposure to the vacuum and radiation of space.
The commercially owned, developed and funded Bishop Airlock has a large role to play for Nanoracks.
With that in mind, Howe silently contemplated the container lid. He did not want the airlock’s protective foam topper bumping against it while traveling down I-10.
“What do you think?” asked Steven Stenzel, director of engineering, who also watched as the top and three sides of the shipping container were lowered to the platform supporting the airlock.
Would they still touch when the container doors were closed, stiffening the roof so it didn’t bow toward the airlock?
There was one way to find out. Howe and the airlock’s mechanical designer Mark Rowley grabbed a flashlight and a stepladder and climbed inside the container as their colleagues shut them in.
Closing the doors worked, Howe confirmed Wednesday after being extracted. Nanoracks was ready to ship the largest, most complex project of the company’s 11-year history.
Packing it up
Packing for this road trip started a few days before FedEx arrived. On Tuesday, the team began wrapping the airlock in plastic, choosing an anti-static polyurethane to protect it from humidity and moisture.
It just happened to be pink.
“It’s like trying to wrap a football with wrapping paper,” Stenzel said. “If you roll it up right, it’s going to be a mess. Though this is more like a basketball than a football.”
They slid plastic pieces under the airlock. Then six additional pieces, measuring 3-by-18 feet, were connected with tape and a portable heat sealer to make a large 18-by-18 square. This was draped over the airlock by Stenzel, Rowley and Michael Kerley, an employee of Merritt Island, Fla.-based Craig Technologies who helped Nanoracks with the airlock’s communications and power cables.
They started folding and taping, but the square covering proved a bit unwieldy for the domed airlock. So Kerley grabbed scissors, wiped them down with alcohol, and prepared to cut.
“Do you want to cut around like that?” he asked.
“I’m kind of going for a circle,” Stenzel said.
“That looks better,” Kerley said after the excess had been removed.
Then they fell into a rhythm of adjusting and taping. The only sounds were the crinkling plastic, humming dehumidifiers and squeaky tape dispenser.
Each of them wore a hair net, lab coat-like jacket and shoe coverings (plus a face mask required in the era of COVID-19). Working in a cleanroom prevents lint, hair or small fibers from hitchhiking into space, where they could get onto a camera lens trying to photograph the Earth or clog the environmental control systems that make the space station habitable.
Ultimately, the team used about 300 feet of plastic to double wrap the airlock. Large desiccant packets, similar to the moisture-absorbing packets found in new purses, would be placed inside to help keep the humidity low.
From racks to an airlock
Nanoracks is among the Houston-area companies bringing commercial flair to an industry long dominated by governments.
Nanoracks designed and owns the Bishop Airlock. It managed the project, installed the electronics and is now proceeding to the final assembly, integration and testing. Thales Alenia Space manufactured the airlock’s domed shell in Italy. Boeing supplied the mechanism that will attach the airlock to the space station’s Node 3 Port.
The airlock will be operated using the space station’s robotic arm. After astronauts load satellites and experiments inside the device (which is not designed for people), air is sucked out and the space station’s robotic arm will disconnect the airlock from the station. The robotic arm can position the airlock away from the station to deploy satellites, or it can attach the airlock to a different part of the station’s exterior to expose strapped-in experiments to space for weeks or months.
“It’s an exciting thing for us because of the opportunities it brings to the space station,” said Boeing spokesman Steven Siceloff.
International Space Station: an orbiting home and lab for two decades
Nanoracks started in 2009 by building racks — providing its namesake — that were placed inside the space station to provide power and data for research cubes. This allowed universities and corporations to more affordably get their experiments, such as biological tests or whiskey aging, into microgravity.
The company then began attaching space telescopes, sensors and electronics to the station’s exterior, and it deployed small satellites from an airlock on the station’s Japanese Experiment Module. But this airlock, opened 10 to 12 times a year, is shared by multiple countries and their space programs. It hasn’t been able to keep up with demand.
The Bishop Airlock will hold five times the volume. Nanoracks hopes it will be opened six times a year.
It has a price tag between $20 million and $30 million. NASA, which provided no funding for the project, will pay to transport it to the space station and, like any other customer, pay to use the airlock.
Bolts, silicone and … zip ties
After the plastic layering, the cleanroom’s air conditioner was turned off. The airlock had been kept at a chilly 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and it needed to gradually come up to about 75 degrees, the temperature of the rest of the building, so condensation wouldn’t form when it was pushed outside the cleanroom.
On Wednesday morning, one day before shipping, a crowd of employees assembled. They were eager to help get the airlock and its wheeled platform into the shipping container.
Six people began to push it, with echoing choruses of “slow, slow, slow” or “stop, stop, stop” as they gingerly guided it toward the shipping container.
They began lowering the container’s top and sides. After determining the lid wouldn’t touch the airlock, they secured the container to the platform. For extra security, RTV silicone was placed on the bolts to ensure they didn’t come undone. Zip ties were added to the latches.
“I call it belt and suspenders,” Rowley said.
FedEx arrived Thursday morning with a Conestoga trailer, a 53-foot-long flatbed trailer with a rolling tarp system to cover it.
FedEx spokeswoman Jennifer Rhea zipped around taking photos, excited about the growing commercial presence in space.
“There’s more of a future with us working with the aerospace division,” she said.
A forklift lifted hoisted the 8,000-pound container onto the truck. Howe, the airlock’s project manager, clutched his phone and a handheld version of the airlock. He often documents Bishop Airlock’s progress with #MiniAirlock.
Vibration isolators would act as shock absorbers as the airlock rolled down the road. Sensors were monitoring its vibration, temperature and humidity.
Thirteen people greeted it when it arrived Friday at the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. They will stay in Florida for two weeks to re-test the airlock’s various systems, including electronics and ventilation.
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Boeing’s seal to attach the airlock to the International Space Station will be the last component installed before the airlock is packed up again, this time for a shorter journey to a SpaceX facility in Florida.
The airlock will take every inch of the SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicle’s trunk, which is used to carry unpressurized cargo. It is secured with just 24 bolts and three stainless steel rods measuring 2 inches in diameter.
“That’s all that holds us in there,” Howe said. “It better work.”