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New Approaches For Producing Large Composite Structures

NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.
by Staff Writers
New Orleans LA (SPX) Jan 23, 2007
Northrop Grumman has teamed up with the University of New Orleans' National Center for Advanced Manufacturing (NCAM) to develop and test new ways to produce large composite structures that NASA could use to create future space transportation systems.

In late December, the team took the first step in that collaboration by conducting a series of composite processing trials at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The facility is managed for NASA by Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The trials centered on the use of a state-of-the-art automated fiber placement machine owned and maintained by NCAM at Michoud. The team used the machine to characterize and evaluate the relationships between the physical and mechanical properties of laminates, and various fiber placement and processing approaches. The team's goal was to identify processing techniques that would optimize the composites' high performance properties and make it easy to form them into very large structures.

"NASA's success in implementing its Constellation program and other elements of the Vision for Space Exploration is going to depend heavily on being able to produce large, mass-efficient structures that are both reliable and affordable," explained Martin McLaughlin, a Northrop Grumman program manager.

"Advanced composites can deliver optimum material properties for increasingly larger, unitized space exploration structures."

Bruce Brailsford, NCAM's executive director, is enthusiastic about his organization's collaboration with Northrop Grumman: "The research we're doing to mature advanced fiber placement technologies is an important step in addressing unique manufacturing challenges related to space exploration," he said.

"It also provides an opportunity for us to support the key role that NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility is playing in the Constellation program."

According to Patrick Scheuermann, NASA's chief operating officer for Michoud Assembly Facility, this alliance between Northrop Grumman and NCAM also marks the first time a new user has operated NCAM equipment at the Michoud Assembly Facility.

"Michoud has a long history of providing manufacturing support for the NASA mission, from the Apollo program to supporting production of the Space Shuttle external tanks today," he said.

"The State of Louisiana has made a significant investment in NCAM, and NASA enjoys a great partnership with them in this capability to infuse new manufacturing techniques into our mission. We're excited Northrop Grumman has accomplished this important first step at Michoud and we look forward to hosting them in the future."

Northrop Grumman and NCAM expect lessons learned from the recent processing trials to provide a good foundation for a more extensive composites demonstration and test program being planned for 2007.

Large, lightweight composite structures, which are estimated to be 10 to 25 percent lighter than comparable aluminum structures, have potential application in several future elements of NASA's Constellation program, including the Ares V Earth Departure Stage, other launch vehicle components, and the Lunar Surface Access Module.

The lower mass of these structures will enable larger payloads to be transported to and from the moon, and eventually, to Mars.

NCAM is a partnership comprising NASA, the State of Louisiana Department of Economic Development, and the University of New Orleans that addresses the manufacturing requirements of space transportation systems.

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