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Tucson’s aeronautics industry has been helping NASA put astronauts into space for years.

Southern Arizona is home to numerous companies whose job is to build parts destined for space. Among these companies is Paragon Space Development Corporation.

Paragon is currently building tubing that will be a part of NASA’s next generation of spacecraft: Orion.

Astronauts listen

Photo: Laura Palmisano

Astronauts Doug Hurley (left) and Rex Walheim (right) listen as a Paragon employee shows them how the tubes they manufacture are made.

Two NASA astronauts, Douglas Hurley and Rex Walheim, recently visited Paragon’s Tucson office.

They toured the facility and gave Paragon an update on the status of the Orion project.

“When we’re in between flights, we have various technical jobs in the astronaut office, and my job is to work with the Orion program,” Walheim said. “(A program that will send) humans farther into space than we ever have before. (And,) Paragon is one of the companies that is helping to make this spacecraft.”

Orion will take astronauts outside of low-Earth-orbit, a first for humans. It is the next step in traveling to places, such as Mars.

Paragon’s part in the project is to build tubing that will be used in the spacecraft’s environmental control and life support system. NASA will be testing those systems soon.

“This hardware is going to fly next year on the first test flight of Orion,” Hurley said. “They just delivered their last shipment of tubing. It’s pretty neat that a year from now, that’s going to be in space.”

Astronauts watch

Photo: Laura Palmisano

The visiting astronauts examine a chamber that simulates the conditions of outer space. Paragon tests products such as their tubing in the chamber.

The spacecraft will be leaving Earth with the help of many aerospace contractors.

Visits like this are important to astronauts because they add a personal touch to the business of space travel.

“It’s great to meet...the thousands of people that are responsible for getting a spaceship into orbit, or, in this case, way beyond low-Earth-orbit,” said Hurley about the trip.

“And really, it’s good for both of us,” Walheim added. “It’s good for them to hear what it’s like to fly in space and to hear what it’s like from our perspective. It’s great for us to see how they build these things, and the incredible detail and care they take with this.”

NASA, like most other government agencies, is dealing with budget cuts. So, involvement of private contractors can help NASA learn how to navigate space travel with less money.

Rex watches

Photo: Laura Palmisano

Astronaut Rex Walheim watches as an employee bends the piping into the shape that NASA will need for the Orion spacecraft.

“We’ve had to make a conscious decision at NASA with all the budgetary pressures we have,” Hurley said. "These commercial companies can do things cheaper than the government."

The symbiotic relationship between NASA and its contractors means the agency can continue its efforts in the new era of government.

“When you combine the experience of NASA with the entrepreneurial spirit of some of these companies, you get a really good synthesis (that) really works out well,” said Walheim.

It is this spirit that NASA hopes will keep it going back to space in the future.

As a point of disclosure, Paragon’s President and Co-founder, Jane Poynter, also works as a host for KUAT-TV’s Arizona Illustrated.