Sunday, February 2, 2003

Reading firm makes shuttle fuel tanks



By Mike Boyer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The space shuttle Columbia's loss particularly touched a handful of employees of General Tool Co. in Reading Saturday.

The high-tech metal-cutting company produces components used on the shuttle's launch fuel tanks and fixtures used to make the huge fuel tanks themselves.

"Oh, my goodness,'' Jim Stewart, General Tool quality manager, said when a friend called him about 10 a.m. to tell him of the tragedy. He said he immediately flashed back to the Challenger explosion in 1986.

Through the years, General Tool, which employs about 250, has hosted visits from several NASA astronauts, although none were those on the Columbia.

Ohio has a long history of contributing to the space program. The Ohio Department of Development says the state is the sixth-largest employer in the aerospace industry, with more than 17,600 workers in 1999, the most recent data.

The NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, one of the agency's primary research centers, was coordinating seven of the more than 100 experiments conducted by the seven-member Columbia crew.

The NASA Glenn experiments ranged from determining how fire changes micro gravity to measuring vibrations 1 million times weaker than earth's gravity.

A Glenn Research spokesman couldn't be reached Saturday afternoon. In a news release shortly before the launch of the 16-day mission, Glenn Research noted that it trained four of the seven flight crew members, including Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

"Our teams at Glenn have been working hard for the last few years to develop the experiments and train the ground and flight crew for mission operations,'' said Ann Over, project manager for three of the experiments.

Although it doesn't build rocket engines, GE Aircraft Engines in Evendale has done extensive research on jet-engine applications for space flight through NASA Glenn.

The most recent is an investigation of the feasibility of using large jet engines such as the GE90 to power a reusable rocket booster.

GEAE received a $55 million contract last summer to study use of jet-engine technology in space flight. In the past, basic research funded by NASA contributed to GEAE's development of the GE90, the highest-thrust jet engine.

A number of Cincinnati-area companies have done work for NASA in the past.

For example, Metcut Research Associates, an Oakley metal testing lab and a sister company, Cincinnati Testing Laboratories, which does composite testing, have done testing work for NASA.

John P. Kahles, Metcut president, said he didn't have data Saturday on its current NASA projects.

"A lot of the time we do testing for them, and we have no idea what it's for. We just provide the data,'' he said.

CTL Aerospace, a West Chester maker of composite structures, also has done work for NASA in the past, but has no current contracts, James C. Irwin, company president, said.

Ironically, CTL Aerospace was producing composite springs in a NASA research project that was supposed to be on the ill-fated Challenger shuttle.

"We had a tooling problem (on the project), and it never made it on board the Challenger,'' he said.

Email mboyer@enquirer.com




(Complete Columbia coverage at Cincinnati.com)

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Reading firm makes shuttle fuel tanks

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