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The Heat's on Engineering Firm : Specialists in Long Beach Build Small Devices for Safety of Space Shuttle

December 10, 1987|CHRIS WOODYARD | Times Staff Writer

Like others in the aerospace industry, executives of Tayco Engineering Inc. worried that the back-to-back explosions of the space shuttle Challenger and a Titan rocket nearly two years ago would bring business to a screeching halt.

"We thought the end of the world had come," recalled Charles H. (Chuck) Taylor, president of the downtown Long Beach company.

But far from depressing sales, the quest to learn and make improvements as a result of the twin disasters has proved a boon to the highly specialized, 80-employee firm.

The privately held company expects $7 million in business from the design and manufacture of heating devices to help prevent the kind of engine blowout that doomed the Challenger in January, 1986.

The Challenger exploded 72 seconds after liftoff on a cold Florida morning in an accident that took the lives of seven astronauts. The disaster was blamed on a rupture of a joint on the right solid-fuel booster that allowed hot gases to burn through two rubber O-rings. The heaters built by Tayco are designed to fit around the rings to help them maintain their flexibility and provide an adequate seal.

"Everybody (here) feels like the future of the space shuttle is on our shoulders," said Jay Chung, the firm's vice president for advanced development. "Everyone here is so proud of putting the space shuttle back into space."

Tayco, which specializes in aerospace heaters and infrared equipment, was selected from among nine bidders to produce the heating strips, according to a spokesman for the prime contractor, Morton Thiokol Inc. of Brigham City, Utah.

All the work is performed at the company's inconspicuous, one-story building on 4th Street at Linden Avenue. It is a combination executive office and factory where walls are covered with photos of missiles and the space shuttle.

The company already had extensive experience with the shuttle when it won the O-ring heater contract. Tayco built 172 different parts on the shuttle that heat everything from the auxiliary power unit to liquid waste in the toilet, according to Taylor, who founded the firm in 1970.

The firm expects to ship the first set of six heating strips this month for installation in the two boosters that will power the shuttle when launches resume as scheduled next year.

Chung said he designed the heaters to maintain the rubber O-rings in the redesigned booster joints at a minimum of 75 degrees in 20-degree temperatures with winds blowing up to 34 m.p.h. Electrical power surges through the strips, creating heat, while the rocket is sitting on the launch pad. The power is cut less than a minute before launch, Chung said.

He said the 3,500-watt heating system is similar to one the company developed for Navy ballistic missiles about a decade ago. Morton Thiokol trucked a section of the booster--which is 12 feet in diameter--to Tayco to aid engineers in the design of the heating element, Chung said.

To make the heating strips, workers bond copper foil or wire to a special insulating material. The result is a brown band, just an inch wide but 38.2 feet long. The band is wrapped around each booster's three joints then covered with a protective layer of cork. In addition, each of the two boosters will carry 12 heat sensors so technicians can keep track of the temperatures of the joints.

Making the shuttle's heating strips is one of the most exacting tasks for production workers because "the dimensions are so critical," said Jerry Hansen, who heads the printed circuit department. The length can deviate no more than a quarter of an inch, she added.

Morton Thiokol officials said they checked out Tayco before awarding the heater contract.

"One of the reasons we chose them is their quality attitude, their performance attitude . . . by actual past history and what they set forth in their proposal," said Adam O'Kelley, Morton Thiokol's major subcontracts administrator.

The work on the shuttle's O-ring heating system led to a similar contract from United Technologies' Chemical Systems Division, maker of the heavy-lift Titan rocket.

So far, the heating system has been successfully used on at least two Titan launches, said Tom Johnson, subcontract administrator for the Chemical Systems Division in San Jose. He said Tayco is "probably one of our better vendors. They are easy to work with."

"In this particular case, they are unique. When we started this program they were the only one responsive to our quote," he said. With superior quality of work and a fair price, "they've managed to meet all of our criteria."

Taylor said he has made quality a top priority. The failure of any of the company's products, from the miles of tiny communications cables with filaments thinner than human hair used in satellites to the larger heating strips on rockets, could result in the loss of a satellite or spacecraft. With so much at stake, Taylor said he holds regular company meetings to inform employees whenever a product is rejected for failing to meet quality standards.

Likewise, he shares the company's success through quarterly bonuses tied to the company's performance. As a result, he said there is relatively little turnover in the work force. He said a worker earning $7 an hour can merit an $800 bonus if the company has been performing well.

Taylor, too, has prospered. A 57-year-old Naval Academy graduate, he divides his time between homes in Rancho Palos Verdes and Rancho Mirage. The latter is a home he designed that has been the subject of articles in splashy city magazines. He collects exotic and antique cars and has taken up the sport of hot-air ballooning.

He said the share-the-wealth policy has paid off for the company's workers. "Without them being happy, we've got nothing," he said.

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