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At Space Expo in Long Beach, industry looks ahead to the next sonic boom

An astronaut floats in outer space.
NASA Glenn Research Center/NASA
An astronaut floats in outer space.

The SPACE 2011 Convention and Expo ended Thursday at the Long Beach Convention Center. The three-day event is the place do be for workers in the aerospace industry, and this year came only a few months after the end of the space shuttle program.

The crew of the final space shuttle mission made appearances at the convention that has convened every year for the last decade.

Bob Dickman is executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the group that puts on the SPACE convention, and he says NASA is here to stay.

"Many of the public hear that the shuttle is not flying and NASA’s going away. All wrong," he said.

Dickman says the government spends upwards of $30 billion a year on space programs. The shuttle program he said, is about a tenth of that. "So, 90 percent of what the government was doing it’s going to continue doing and doing better because it doesn’t have to do things it was doing before," he said.

Still, that missing 10 percent is like a crater in the aerospace industry. NASA laid off about 3,000 people with the retirement of the space shuttle program. Big contractors like Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne cut back, too.

Jack Hammond is Executive Vice President of Del Mar Avionics, and says he can see the hole left by that 10 percent, "the Kennedy Space Center is like a morgue now."

Hammond's Irvine-based company makes an essential device for the aerospace industry: the Hydra-Set. When you need to lift up to 300 tons of sensitive equipment and move it a tiny fraction of an inch, you need a Hydra-Set, and that means you need Del Mar Avionics. His business is the only company in the world that builds anything like the Hydra-Set.

"The dollar has dried up in the aerospace industry, and you can see that here at this show," said Hammond.

"Boeing and Lockheed and Northrop used to have 60 feet by 40 feet booths. Now they’re on 20 by 20. This year, they’re just cutting down."

The SPACE convention was a little quiet, but with more than 1,000 people registered, organizers said that was more than last year.

Despite suffering cutbacks nationwide aerospace continues to need a lot of people and firms in the Southland. NASA administrator Chris Scolese says that won’t change anytime soon.

"As I’m talking to you, we have instruments being built for spacecraft that are going to look at the earth," he said. The instruments are being built in Souther California, he said, "so that’s bringing in a lot of people, and we expect to do that for a number of years. Some are weather satellites and most of those sensors are built right here."

Two weeks ago NASA announced plans for a new Space Launch System, a rocket that can carry 70-100 tons of cargo or people to lower earth orbit. Scolese says that and other manned space flight ventures should mean more aerospace jobs in Southern California as well.

"Once we start going out into space, many of those systems that go inside those vehicles are built here. And the experiments that we’ll do, the science that will be done: a lot of that comes from this area right here," said Scolese.

And when it’s time to come back from space, a couple hundred workers at Airborne Systems in Santa Ana aim to provide the parachutes. Project Manager Leo Lichodziejewski says he’s worked at Airborne for three years, since then, he said, the staff has nearly doubled.

"I know that the economic environment isn’t very good these days, but we’re certainly growing," said Lichodziejewski.

Airborne Systems has made parachutes for NASA and the military. Now it’s designing them for SpaceX. That’s the Hawthorne-based company that hopes to make money taking people into space. Lichodziejewski used the SPACE convention to educate possicle customers about Airborne Systems parachutes.

"Letting our customers down for many years. Letting our customers down gently for many years," joked Lichodziejewski.

That's not a bad place to be in an industry looking for a soft landing.