FREDERICA — A company in the small town of Frederica is making its mark in the future of space travel with a groundbreaking spacesuit partnership with NASA announced earlier this month.
ILC Dover, founded in 1947, and its engineers are seasoned veterans in the space industry. During the Apollo era, ILC Dover was responsible for the design and production of spacesuits — better known as pressure garments in the industry — to walk the surface of the moon.
But back then, NASA contracted development and production to industry leaders, with these contracts not allowing their industrial partners to put their logos on the products. This meant ILC Dover had no logos or brand identification during the historic first moon landing.
“That’s all about to change,” says Daniel Klopp, director of marketing and business development with the company.
Along with longtime partner Collins Aerospace and a company called Oceaneering, ILC Dover is set to produce NASA’s next-generation extravehicular spacesuit. And this time, the agreement allows for ILC Dover branding to be on the suits.
The Frederica company, which employs around 50 people in its space systems division, will be responsible for producing what is also known as the EVA pressure garment, which is used outside of the spacecraft. Oceaneering will be providing the tools, while Collins Aerospace will supply the most expensive part, the personal life support system — which is worn on the back of the suit.
ILC Dover’s next-generation suit will have tangible improvements over previous iterations. Mr. Klopp said that the company’s older suits were made in three sizes and could fit astronauts sized from the 40th to 85th percentiles.
“This next-gen suit, with just two sizes of upper torso, will be able to fit from the first to the 99th percentile,” Mr. Klopp said.
These significant advancements stem from ILC Dover’s research and development facility in Houston, Texas, which houses about 20 company employees.
Having a spacesuit that can fit a wider variety of heights aligns with the goals of the NASA-led Artemis program. As stated in a NASA press release, the commercial partnership will help towards “landing the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface.”
In addition to the suit itself, resizing components will now be easier to install on the suit and allow astronauts to wear the same spacesuits.
“These resizing components allow us to move the shoulder bearings in and out on the same-sized upper torso,” Mr. Klopp said. “I can hold a pile of the resizing components in the palms of two hands.”
Collins Aerospace and ILC Dover won one of the bids, while a Houston-located company called Axiom Space won the other to partner with NASA. Mr. Klopp expressed confidence in the former’s ability to produce not just the pressure garments, but also the resizing components that play an important role.
“We’ve had these theories on resizability for a long time. We will be surprised if the Axiom partnership is able to execute at the same level we are, in terms of this.”
Mr. Klopp mentioned that there is a sense of urgency within the company to deliver by the 2025 deadline, including a need to hire additional engineers. But there is also eagerness to be involved at such a monumental time in the space industry.
“That same sense of urgency was present in the Apollo era. We get to live through the excitement that they must have felt.”
ILC Dover’s global reach extends far past the space systems division, however. The most lucrative product line the company has is its pharmaceutical side, which is located domestically and internationally in Ireland.
Mr. Klopp said the effects of ILC Dover’s logo on the spacesuits will be felt companywide.
“If we can keep an astronaut safe in space, we can contain your pharmaceuticals,” he said. “It will have a more beneficial spillover effect to our other product lines. Most people that are serious in the space community already know us.”
Those other product lines were mainly introduced after the Apollo era, when the company fell on hard times. Along with the space systems division and pharmaceutical line, ILC Dover has lines in intermediate bulk packaging, flood barriers and lighter-than-air aircraft (aerostats and blimps).
A diversified company portfolio has helped ILC Dover forge on for over 70 years and remain the “leading authority on spacesuits and spacesuit development,” as Klopp puts it.
The next-generation partnership allows the small but mighty company to follow in the footsteps of those that provided the pressure garments back during the Apollo missions.
“It’s a continuation of our legacy since we currently have the only boot prints on the Moon,” Mr. Klopp said. “It’s exciting to continue that legacy of the company. Hopefully we’ll have the next set of boot prints on the Moon.”