Workers at Textron Defense Systems in Wilmington, Mass., apply a coating to a heat shield that will attach to the Orion, a spacecraft scheduled to launch
Workers at Textron Defense Systems in Wilmington, Mass., apply a coating to a heat shield that will attach to the Orion, a spacecraft scheduled to launch in 2017 and take astronauts farther in space than ever before. (Courtesy Photo/NASA)

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Astronaut Rex Walheim has been to the International Space Station three times, spending a total of 36 days in space.

As NASA's astronaut representative to the Orion spacecraft program, he's now working on a project that will take others deeper into orbit.

"There's something in humans that they always want to know what's over the next hill, what's beyond," Walheim said. "It's a spirit of exploration that's built into us."

Set to launch in 2017, Orion will take astronauts farther out in space than ever before, setting the stage for human exploration of Mars and missions to asteroids.

Rendering of the completed Orion spacecraft in orbit. Courtesy NASA
Rendering of the completed Orion spacecraft in orbit. Courtesy NASA (Courtesy Photo/NASA)

Astronauts returning from those ventures will face temperatures of 5,000 degrees as they reenter the Earth's atmosphere. When they do, it's work done at Wilmington's Textron Defense Systems that will keep them safe.

"At that moment, you're glad that you've got great navigation, all of the other systems ... but I think you would agree that at that moment, what you're most interested in is who put that heat shield together," said Jeff Picard, Textron's senior vice president of program execution.

The spaceship's heat shield, the largest of its kind ever created, attaches to the Orion's crew module, protecting the capsule -- and the people inside it -- from extreme temperatures.

Assembled in the Colorado facility of aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin, the shield arrived in Wilmington in late March.

Since then, crews have been at work 24 hours a day, six days a week, applying Textron's ablative coating, a material that protects the structure from extreme temperatures by lifting hot gas away from the shield's outer wall to create a cooler boundary layer.

The coating, the same used on NASA's Apollo capsules, is injected with "glorified caulking guns" into honeycomb cells on the shield, said Mike Kieran, Textron's vice president of integrated supply chain.

At a presentation with representatives from NASA and Lockheed Martin last week, Textron officials said the coating application is now more than halfway done.

Kieran said there has been a buzz around Textron's Wilmington campus since the day the heat shield arrived, in a convoy from Hanscom Air Force Base. That day, he said, most employees were too excited to do much work.

"All day long, there's people coming by that just kind of poke their head in and see what's going on, just from a curiosity standpoint," Kieran said. "People are excited to be a part of this. I can't wait for the launch. It'll be another no-work-getting-done day."

The launch Kieran is waiting for is a test flight in September 2014 from Cape Canaveral, when an unmanned Orion craft will circle the planet twice in 90 minutes.

The heat shield will travel to Florida this fall, though, to be added onto the rest of the spacecraft, which is being assembled in other parts of the country.

"It's like a great big puzzle, putting this thing together in steps," said Jim Bray, Lockheed Martin's Orion crew and service-module director.

Bray said managing components built in different states is complex but necessary to ensure quality.

"You go where the skills are," he said. "Textron did similar work on Apollo. They've done this on other spacecraft, and you have to go where the talent is."

To the Wilmington officials who toured the Textron plant last week, having a NASA project in their town has been a point of pride and a cause for excitement.

"I just love knowing that it's here," Selectman Mike Champoux said. "I live a mile and a half down the road. I drive by this building all the time."

In addition to seeking out the most skilled crews, it's that spirit and connection that NASA hopes to foster by partnering with different companies nationwide, said Charlie Lundquist, the Orion crew and service-module manager at NASA.

"We've found a lot of communities aren't even aware they're working on the space program," Lundquist said. "They think, 'Oh, that's down in Florida,' or 'Oh, that's in Houston at mission control.' But it's in your backyard. It's down the street."