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Geeking Out About Space Flight

As Products Finishing releases its October aerospace-themed issue, editor-in-chief Scott Francis takes the opportunity to reflect on the finishing industry’s role in aerospace and space markets.
#editorial #plating #aerospace

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The October issue of Products Finishing is our aerospace issue — and an opportunity for the PF team to geek about new aerospace and space flight technology and applications. Luckily, most of the people I work with at Gardner are also nerds that tend to get wound up about such topics. The compiling of content for this issue has been fun, filled with plenty of Top Gun wing-man jokes and side conversations about the Mars 2020 rover and SpaceX Crew Dragon missions. So, when I asked managing editor Jenny Rush what I should write about this month, she pulled her best Aubrey Plaza impression and said “Why don’t you write about space?”

Flashback to when I was 14 and I thought I wanted to be an astronaut. A steady diet of Star Wars prompted me to bug my parents to let me go to Space Camp (actually, Space Academy — Space Camp is for the younger kids). My trip to Huntsville, Alabama was also my very first airplane ride. Turns out having a fear of heights means you actually do not want to be an astronaut. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by space and had read a lot about various NASA missions and knew a fair amount about the space program. So I tested well on the first day of camp and found myself piloting a Space Shuttle Simulator mission.

Ultimately, I ended up with a very different career as a writer and editor. But I’ve always wondered what twists and turns my career path might have taken if I had somehow gotten it through my thick head as a kid that I didn’t have to be an astronaut to be part of space exploration. I was so wrapped up in the astronaut fantasy that I didn’t think as much as I should have about how spacecraft and launchers were made. The Space Academy tours of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center production facilities were cool, but I didn’t really think about the possibility of becoming an engineer and learning how to make the stuff that makes space missions happen. Today, it’s clear to me how important it is to teach kids about STEM opportunities and reinforce the idea that they can be part of these exciting programs in ways they might not have thought of whenever possible.

Today, I’m lucky enough to get to write about some of the things that fascinated me in my youth. So, when Scott Andrews of Andrews Powder Coating asked me if I wanted to do a write up on some work he was doing on a satellite program, I jumped at the chance — make sure to check out this issue’s story about the process APC went through to get powder coating qualified for space flight. As I dug farther into the work for this issue, I talked to Valence Surface Technologies, a company that processes a whole host of components for spacecraft, launchers and satellites for various space OEMs. Like a fan boy at a comic convention, I could feel myself edging toward a complete nerd-out as I talked to these companies and learned more about the programs they were working on.

We’re living in an exciting time. On May 30, NASA astronauts launched in an American rocket from U.S. soil for the first time since the Space Shuttle program was discontinued in 2011. The U.S. has its sights set on a return to the Moon in by 2024. NASA, along with commercial and international partners, is working on an orbital lunar base that will support the exploration of the moon and serve as outpost for eventual missions to Mars. Of course, manned missions get a lot of attention, but the importance of unmanned robotic missions cannot be overstated. On July 30, a new Mars rover mission was successfully launched. Known as Perseverance, the rover’s mission is to search the red planet for signs of ancient life and cache rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth. It carries with it an autonomous helicopter that will be humanity’s first attempt at flight in an alien atmosphere. I wrote in a previous issue about some of the coatings that help protect the rover — both its exterior and its components — from the harsh environment of Mars. And there are more exciting missions to come. The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch in March of 2021 and it will be amazing to see the Artemis program unfold in the coming years.

It’s thrilling to learn about the ways the finishing industry is involved in such missions, but not only because our industry gets to play a role in humanity’s next great leaps into the stars. There are benefits right here on Earth as well. One of the things that make advances in the aerospace sector so exciting is that the area also serves as a proving ground for new technologies. Aerospace and space applications have a bit more latitude for research and development and trying new materials and processes. Ultimately, the benefits of that work find their way into other sectors and enrich our lives on this planet. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Can you?

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