NASA Pathfinder completed in Cordova

CORDOVA — Business leaders and elected officials celebrated the completion of the NASA SLS Core Stage Pathfinder at G&G Steel in Cordova on Thursday, which will help in training to advance space exploration to Mars. Made of steel and measuring 212 feet in length and 27.6 feet in diameter, the Pathfinder is a full-scale mockup of the Space Launch System Core Stage, described on NASA’s website as “the backbone of the most powerful rocket in the world.” The SLS is designed to enable missions to Mars and other deep space destinations, such as asteroids. Once completed, it will have a lift capability of 130 metric tons. G&G Steel perfomed the final welding and major assembly operations on the Pathfinder at its Cordova facility on Horse Creek Boulevard. The company is headquartered in Russellville, where high school students won an international rocketry championship in 2015. G&G Steel vice president Bret Gist described how employees in Russellville and Cordova collaborated on construction of the Pathfinder. “Each one of these sections was a can. A can was about 18 feet long. We basically built a can at a time and put the cans together to come up with the 212 feet,” Gist said. At least three Cordova natives — Dennis Robinson, Caleb Myers and Maverick Manuel — were part of the welding team for the Pathfinder. “I never thought that I would be working on a rocket,” Myers said. Manuel described the project as “fun and unique,” while Robinson said he was glad to be a part of it. Three cranes will be used to lift the Pathfinder onto a barge that will transport it via the Black Warrior River to the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. It will later be transported to NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“This awesome Pathfinder will never leave planet Earth, yet it is critical to NASA’s deep space exploration mission,” said Julie Bassler, deputy program manager for the NASA SLS stages office at Marshall Space Flight Center. “This physical model is designed to match the size, shape and handling points of the flight core stage that NASA and Boeing are assembling right now at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. This Pathfinder will serve as our training hardware to significantly reduce the risk of shipping, handling and transporting the real core stage.” U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, a member of the Justice and Science Subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives that approves funding for NASA, called the completion of the Pathfinder “a great day for America” and applauded all the workers involved for their effort. “I think for so many Americans, it is easy to take space exploration for granted. I always try to communicate to people how important space exploration is. So many of the things we have today are the result of what has been done in the past,” Aderholt said. Radiance Technologies and Dynetics received the delivery order for the Pathfinder from NASA in February 2016. More than 1,100 suppliers in 40 states are part of the SLS team, and more than 13,000 jobs in Alabama are generated by SLS, according to Bassler. Radiance Technologies CEO Bill Bailey said residents of north Alabama should be proud of the region’s role in space exploration. “I grew up during that period of time when we were sending people to the moon. I was very proud of the fact that Alabama played heavily in the space program. Here we are many years later, and Alabama is still playing very large in the space program,” Bailey said. Thursday’s event was the second of the week for Huntsville-based Dynetics, Inc., which served as the technical lead on the development of the Pathfinder. On Tuesday, a groundbreaking was held in Decatur for the Dynetics Aerospace Structures Complex, which will allow for the development and testing of large aerospace structures in north Alabama. The company, which built a cryogenic tank for NASA’s SLS Advance Booster program in 2012, was recently awarded the contract for the SLS Universal Stage Adapter. “This project has really been a testament to the innovation, commitment and dedication of so many engineers and technicians across north Alabama. We’re really proud that we can provide NASA this article that they can use for operations and training before the real core stage is delivered to the Kennedy Space Center for Exploration Mission-1,” said Robert Wright, Dynetics Space Systems deputy division manager. The target launch date for Exploration Mission-1 is 2019. According to NASA’s website, an unmanned Orion spacecraft will travel thousands of miles beyond the moon over the course of about a three-week mission.