One big idea

A North Lima company that prides itself on “vehicle solutions” is hoping to provide the transportation answers for a NASA project that sends enormous balloons into the final frontier.

KTSDI company manager Ken Timmings said last week his company’s task was to envision and build a vehicle that can be maneuvered easily, that is able to adapt quickly to shifts in wind direction and that can carry a balloon the size of a football field.

Once it takes off, the balloon will pick up a payload that weighs tons and float into the stratosphere to satellites.

“Our trucks will help establish a successful balloon launch,” Timmings said. He spoke as he toured members of the media and a representative of the governor’s office through his bright new 12,000-square-foot plant just south of the Boardman Township line. The company that now employs about a dozen workers relocated to the new facility around Christmas.

“We have seen growth in the last three years that’s been tremendous,” Timmings said. “The growth has been pretty sustained. Of course, NASA is a big one.”

Timmings said it wasn’t that long ago that the company, created in 2007, had just one employee and worked out of a nearby home.

It was decades earlier that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was taking over the balloon program, previously managed by the National Science Foundation, in 1982.

Ed Campion, NASA’s news chief for the Goddard Space Flight Program in Maryland, said the balloon program has allowed NASA the ability to study the earth via unmanned helium balloons from different levels of the atmosphere.

“Because there are no humans on board, they can be up there for weeks at a time,” Goddard said.

According to information provided by NASA, scientific observations in fields such as hard x-ray/gamma-ray and infra-red astronomy, cosmic rays and atmospheric studies have been made from balloons.

Thin-film high-altitude balloons are used for higher altitude flights. Super pressure balloons used for long-duration ballooning have greatly expanded the opportunities for scientific studies from balloons, NASA’s web site states.

“The whole concept and idea is that the balloon launch and capability can get it (payloads) up into the sky at a fraction of the cost of a shuttle launch,” Timmings said. By his estimates, the balloon transport can be done 100 to 1,000 times cheaper than a shuttle launch.

That, however, is not to say it’s cheap.

“What we are doing is approaching $1 million just for the truck,” Timmings said. “Each launch is a matter of the helium, labor and balloons, which can run in the $150,000 to $180,000 range per balloon. If you lose that payload, you have lost millions of dollars.”

To drive the truck, KTSDI engineers have designed a simplistic remote control closely resembling a video game controller, but with features like cruise control.

While NASA balloon launches have been going on for more than a decade, the creation of more maneuverable technology to protect the balloon in the event of wind shift during launch is what’s new.

“This has never been done before. We were invited to the table on the truck side because they needed a feature to rotate on the axis to get the prevailing wind behind you,” Timmings said.

And now after working on it for about eight months, KTSDI is nearing the final stage as part of a consortium of domestic companies assisting on the project.

By mid to late summer, Timmings expects to test the vehicle prototype in the New Mexico desert.

His company has designed and manufactured massive individual wheel bases that will be located more than 750′ feet apart to haul the equally massive balloon that inflates up to 100 times the volume of the Good Year blimp.

“It’s a big balloon,” said Chris Eash, KTSDI engineering coordinator. “You have the Good Year blimp. This is the size of the hangar.”