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Oil Drilling Gear May Be Used in Outer Space : Makers of Sophisticated Equipment That Can Operate in Harsh Environment See New Market

December 11, 1987|From Reuters

HOUSTON — Sophisticated oil drilling technology developed on the ocean floor is finding new uses in outer space by oil field service companies that hope to discover a gusher of business in the aerospace industry.

Experts say the Oil Patch's creation of pipe sealings that withstand temperature ranges of more than 250 degrees, subsea robotic vehicles, self-propelled diving suits and other tools to cope with drilling some 2,000 feet below the surface of the ocean can be readily converted for use by the U.S. space program.

Modified offshore oil rigs may even be used to launch large rockets bigger than the Saturn V into space under a plan recently announced by Brown & Root Development Inc. and McDonnell Douglas Corp.'s Astronautics Co.

The oil field service and supply industry, which generates some $40 billion in annual revenue, is likely to add more than $500 million worth of new annual aerospace business by 1995, according to Mike Steen, a technology consultant with Arthur D. Little.

The extra sales could be the key to survival for some oil field companies struggling in the wake of $18 a barrel oil and fewer drilling projects.

Potential products to be sold to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its primary contractors range from motorized diving suits to 3-D seismic mapping techniques that use algorithms applicable to navigation aboard the U.S. space shuttle, Steen said.

"There are more similarities between subsea oil drilling and aerospace projects than differences," said Dick Frisbie, president of Oceaneering International Inc.'s engineering subsidiary.

"Both are high-cost, high-risk harsh environments where if you make a single mistake, lives can be in jeopardy," he said. "The work that NASA is trying to do is in many cases identical to what we've already done on the ocean floor."

In the Running

Oceaneering, a leader in developing remotely operated vehicles and self-propelled diving suits for use in waters up to 2,000 feet deep, is competing for a European Space Agency contract to provide robotics for the agency's module that will be installed on the U.S. space station.

The Houston-based company also is in the running for a NASA contract to study maintenance and repair of the planned multibillion-dollar space station over its 30-year life. Many of the routine tasks could be done by remotely operated vehicles that now perform more than 500 tasks to install oil drilling equipment on the ocean floor, such as tightening bolts and replacing valves, Frisbie said.

"Some space station work is eventually going to get pretty routine and will become a high-tech, blue collar job requiring a new breed of worker," Frisbie said. "It won't require a Ph.D.-educated astronaut to operate these kinds of maintenance machines."

New Use for Rigs

Offshore oil rigs mothballed since world oil prices collapsed last year may find a new use by the Air Force, which is hoping to use semi-submersible rigs to launch its big rockets weighing 6 million pounds each. The advanced launch system would be safer and could cut the cost-per-pound of launching cargo into space by 90%, according to primary contractor McDonnell Douglas.

Cortest Laboratories, a company formed five years ago to analyze the effects of corrosion on oil drilling equipment caused by high temperatures and pressure, is also mining the aerospace industry for new business.

The company now depends on oil drilling clients for only about one-third of its sales, with the remainder evenly divided between chemical processing plants and aerospace contracts. Cortest's biggest chunk of aerospace work is the $500,000 generated annually for its testing of materials for NASA's National Aerospace Plane, a planned hypersonic airplane dubbed the "Orient Express" that will haul passengers from New York to Tokyo in just two hours.

"We all saw what one rubber O-ring did to the space shuttle Challenger when no one really knew what its cold weather limits were," said Russell Kane, president of Cortest. "Reliability of materials and construction is now very, very high on NASA's list."

Cortest's work on NASA's aerospace plane includes testing the effect of hydrogen--a highly corrosive element found deep inside oil wells--on the metals and ceramics that will make up the aircraft's propulsion system.

"With oil prices expected to be level or slightly declining for the near-term, oil field manufacturers have to apply their skills in new markets," said Arthur D. Little's Steen. "Space applications are a natural for the oil industry, which has had to push technology ahead as it moved into deep offshore waters, into the Arctic North Slope and into the desert. The Oil Patch has developed the logistics to keep people alive in some of the most remote corners of the world."

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