SAN FRANCISCO — In an effort to expand and broaden its business, Orbital Outfitters Ltd. is preparing to move its corporate headquarters from Los Angeles to Midland, Texas. The firm, which was established in 2006 to provide spacesuits for the emerging commercial space industry, plans to build an extensive vacuum testing facility scheduled to open in 2016.
“The new capability is exciting because we will be able to do integrated tests to show a company what a real decompression event would look like, not just in its suits but in its specific cockpit with its instruments and its environmental control and life-support system,” said Jeff Feige, Orbital Outfitters chief executive.
In addition, Orbital Outfitters’ new facility will be designed to cater to customers beyond its traditional base in the human spaceflight industry. While the company plans to continue serving that segment of the market, the slow pace of growth in human spaceflight is forcing the firm to expand its line of products and services. “In the immediate future, we are looking to see how we might support the market for testing components and even small satellites,” Feige said.
“I’m equally excited about diversifying the company with the ability to support parts of the industry that are growing a little bit faster,” Feige said. “The human spaceflight market is still extremely small. It’s challenging to grow the business in an industry that while its growing is not growing very fast yet, although we are all optimistic.”
Orbital Outfitters’ planned facility will be adjacent to the research and development center XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., is building. The two firms have worked together closely since 2006 when Orbital Outfitters signed its first spacesuit development contract with XCOR. In 2012, Orbital Outfitters built a full-scale mockup of XCOR’s Lynx, a two-seat piloted suborbital spaceplane.
Orbital Outfitters is expected to receive significant financial support from Midland Development Corp. In January, Midland Development Corp. approved a plan to spend nearly $7 million on an incentive package that includes construction of the new vacuum testing facility, which the agency will own and Orbital Outfitters will manage and operate. Midland Development Corp. also agreed to pay for construction of the company’s new headquarters and to provide $1.5 million to Orbital Outfitters to cover relocation expenses, said Pamela Welch, Midland Development Corp. executive director.
Those financial incentives are likely to help Orbital Outfitters compete in the space systems testing business, Feige said. “We’ll be the most price competitive place on the market,” he added.
In addition, Orbital Outfitters is designing its new facility to meet the needs of existing and potential customers. “We are talking to a broad customer base to figure out what they will need in the future,” Feige said. “If it turns out what they need is different than what we have planned, we still have time to adjust the plan. We are looking to customize the facility to offer what the market wants right now.”
One capability Orbital Outfitters is committed to offering is extensive human factors testing. “We will have the ability to conduct tests with multiple suited people,” Feige said. “The chamber facility will be large enough that we can fit entire cockpits with suited people with life support.”
That type of testing might prove valuable as the human spaceflight industry develops. “The industry is in an early enough stage that while core capability is very transferable among different vehicles, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all spacesuit,” Feige said. “Every requirement is different enough that even though you might use the same shoulder joint across all the vehicles, it’s not the same suit across all of them.”
In the suborbital market, for example, each spacecraft has been designed in a way that will require unique suits to be designed for the unique seating configuration, emergency procedures and life-support system of each vehicle. That lack of standardization increases the cost of spacesuits because they must be produced in smaller lots. In an ideal world, the spacesuit provider would work closely with the cockpit designer and environmental control and life-support system provider, Feige said.
“People still think of spacesuits as the clothes you wear on launch day but they are an integrated vehicle subsystem,” Feige said. “Suits are invited as the last ones to the party and perceived to be an off-the-shelf item when there isn’t really anything off-the-shelf. That’s the biggest challenge we face.”
To date, Orbital Outfitters has focused work on development and initial production of launch-entry suits rather than extra-vehicular activity suits. “We have yet to see a commercial market for extra-vehicular activity suits,” Feige said. “The instant we do see that market or think its right over the horizon, we will dive into it.”
Orbital Outfitters launch-entry suits are designed to provide spaceflight crews and passengers with protection, thermal control and air for breathing. Depending on the intended spacecraft, suits also may offer additional features such as protection from smoke, fire or chemical exposure.