Oberlin inflatables company tapped for NASA capsule shelters

By Jason Hawk - jhawk@civitasmedia.com



Imagine a tent big enough to hold a helicopter — or a space capsule.

Joanne Douglas doesn’t have to imagine. She makes them.

Her company, Big Productions Inc. on US 20 just outside of Oberlin, makes inflatable helmets, tunnels, and mascots for high school and college teams. It also makes inflatable shelters that can be used for everything from dent and scratch repair bays at auto dealerships to triage units for ambulance crews.

Soon the company will deliver on its biggest order yet: a huge, fabric enclosure where Boeing contractors for NASA can work on spacecraft, providing a clean environment inside a hangar.

“What we’re finishing up for them is 80 feet by 80 feet and they’re going to suspend this inside the building — I guess there are some leaks — so they don’t get dust, water, anything on the space capsule,” Douglas said.

After working on it day and night, she expects to deliver the completed shelter to NASA this month in Florida.

The agency halted its iconic space shuttle program in 2011 but continues to build and launch other vehicles.

For example, NASA is building the Orion spacecraft to carry astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. It will get a boost from a powerful rocket called the Space Launch System, which will be tested in 2018.

Boeing’s Orbiter Processing Facility-3 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida is where it builds the CST-100 commercial spacecraft, which carries payloads to the International Space Station. At around 29,000 feet, the OPF’s floor is large enough to hold several Crew Space Transportation capsules — reusable units that can carry seven people into orbit.

That program was approved in 2011 and ramped up in 2015.

Last year, a Boeing engineer for NASA found Big Productions and asked for help with a space capsule recovery system.

“The thinking is the space (capsule) is going to come down and land in the desert. They need a shelter,” said Douglas, who filled that first order and was immediately recommended for another.

The NASA jobs have been a boon for the Oberlin business, which has five employees. Douglas said she expects more orders for the space agency in the near future.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.


By Jason Hawk