Robert Ellis, President, Wyle Integrated Science and Engineering Group

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Wyle captured the spotlight this fall with the launch of its space station treadmill named for political satirist Stephen Colbert and a water analysis tool used by astronauts to ensure that the station’s recycled urine is, in fact, safe to drink. Both pieces of equipment were built by Wyle’s Integrated Science and Engineering Group based in Houston, but they show only one facet of the work going on there. Under various company names and owners, the group has been conducting life sciences research, supporting space medical programs and performing engineering work for NASA for more than 40 years.

Robert Ellis, Wyle Integrated Science and Engineering Group president, began working in space life sciences in 1967, as the company (which was then called Technology Inc.) prepared to bid on its first NASA contract, a four-person job to study the cardiovascular health of astronauts. Four decades later, NASA remains the dominant customer for the group, which employs approximately 1,300 people and generates $175 million in annual revenue. In addition, the group provides astronaut training and mission support services for the European Space Agency at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany, and works with New Mexico-based Virgin Galactic to develop plans and procedures for health-related aspects of suborbital flights.

In June, the group’s corporate parent, Wyle of El Segundo, Calif., was purchased by Court Square Capital, an independent private equity firm based in New York. The purchase price was not disclosed. Wyle, formerly known as Wyle Laboratories, employs 3,800 people at 40 primary locations in the United States and generates $800 million in annual sales.

Ellis spoke recently with Space News correspondent Debra Werner.  

 

About a year ago, you dropped the name Wyle Life Sciences Group. Why the name change?

A lot of the contracts that have been coming out for bid are either engineering contracts or engineering and science contracts. We have a good cadre of engineers, and the name Wyle Life Sciences Group was restrictive. People kept thinking of us as just a life science company. We wanted to rebrand ourselves. Even here at Johnson Space Center people who we don’t support directly were not aware that we integrate teams of scientists and engineers to address a broad range of tasks.

 

How did the NASA business develop after the firm’s first four-person job in 1967?

Ours was the first support contract at Johnson Space Center. In the building where we were located, there were a number of laboratories: environmental physiology, food, vision, microbiology. The people there started hearing about us and the work that we were doing. Before we knew it, we had seven or eight individual support contracts. That was the beginning. We started those contracts prior to Apollo 11. We supported NASA from about Apollo 7 forward. That’s where we entered the scene.

 

What kind of work do you do now?

We still have a large scientific base. But along the way, we also began to hire a lot of engineers. A lot of what we do involves some sort of hardware test equipment that has to be unique, especially if it’s going to eventually fly on a spacecraft. It has to stand up to the rigors of weightlessness, the rigors of launch and landing. So we brought in a number of engineers and became pretty well known for the fact that we could manage two diverse disciplines.

Engineers and scientists don’t always talk well to each other. But we were able to mentor them and they became a close-knit group. That gave us a real edge in that we could provide both of those disciplines and therefore do more turnkey type projects.

 

What type of turnkey projects do you perform?

Flight hardware is probably our biggest claim to fame. We just put on the space station two pretty sophisticated pieces of gear. One, the Total Organic Carbon Analyzer [TOCA], was developed by us. You may have heard several months ago that NASA had flown equipment to recycle wastewater. We didn’t have anything to do with that equipment. But TOCA analyzes the product to see if it’s truly recycled and truly suitable for drinking. That’s been a very important part of that recycling program.

Also, we just launched a new-generation treadmill, which is going through its final testing. It’s on station. It has been bolted in and is going through its final paces.

 

That would be the Colbert?

Yes.

 

Is it already in use?

They are using it. When we launched, it was not due to be ready to use until February. NASA moved things up considerably and asked us if we could support that. It had a fairly regimented test phase. So we had to bring a lot more people back onto that project to go through this test phase. It’s been very successful to date.

 

There’s a great deal of uncertainty about the future direction of the human space program in the wake of the Augustine committee’s report.

We don’t feel that uncertainty. We do not feel the government is going to turn its back on manned spaceflight. Where we go next or exactly what we do is really up to the president. I just don’t expect to see a void in manned exploration.

 

Will the retirement of the space shuttle make it more difficult to send your flight hardware to the space station?

We already use some of the other vehicles, including the Russian Progress. There will be other options after shuttle: the Japanese vehicle, the European vehicle. In addition, NASA is committed to keeping shuttle going to fully populate station before the program shuts down.

 

Looking ahead, what new opportunities do you see?

We have been taking the capabilities we’ve developed here and applying them to other markets, including the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control. We are pursuing various engineering projects at other NASA centers as well.

We also think there is going to be more research dollars available. A couple of years ago, all the dollars that were earmarked for science got moved over to the Constellation program. A lot of the science projects were put on hold. We see that loosening up somewhat in the near future. We think those types of projects will be funded again.

 

What type of research and development work do you anticipate?

Most research that is done on station requires some sort of test equipment. That’s part of it. A big unknown is what’s going to happen with the lunar thrust. Is there going to be a lunar outpost? Even if not, maybe we’re going to Mars. If so, almost every manned support system will have to be redesigned, rebuilt and re-thought.

When you think about going up to station, it takes you a couple of days to get there and you’re in a vehicle you can eject from if you are sick and get back down to Earth. But going to Mars, where it may take upward of a year-and-a-half to get there, is different. Once you start going in one direction you can’t just do a U-turn. All the support equipment is going to have to be more robust, more sophisticated and capable of solving other problems. There is going to be a lot more concern about the emotional stability of a person who will be very isolated for up to two to three years. A lot of that will also play into our strengths.

 

How can you help in that area?

First of all, you have to make sure you select an astronaut that can withstand that sort of environment. We support NASA through all aspects of their selection process, which currently includes psychological testing.

We have become very active in keeping space station astronauts connected with their families. We work very, very closely with the families. There are a lot of communications that go on a regular basis where the family comes into the space center and has video hookup with the astronaut. Within our work force we assign one or more people full-time to an astronaut’s family when an astronaut is on a mission. If they’ve got a medical emergency or a transportation emergency, we take care of it. That takes a lot of strain off the astronaut.

We also build devices to address some of the concerns about what weightlessness does to the body. On station there is exercise equipment such as treadmills. Those astronauts are only up there for six months. What’s going to happen if someone is in space for two to three years? Will the vehicle be big enough to handle the amount of exercise equipment those astronauts will have to have?