With help from Calhoun Community College, United Launch Alliance is adding 50 employees as it prepares to increase rocket production by 50 percent.
The Decatur plant received 1,000 applications for the 50 technician positions, said Phil Marshall, vice president of production and recurring operations.
“For us it’s easier to bring in about 10 at a time,” Marshall said after speaking at a Daybreak Rotary meeting last week. “You should see about 10 people we bring in every month for the next few months.”
While ULA is still processing applications, many are graduates of Calhoun’s Aerospace Training Center. The two-year program provides students with an associate’s degree in applied technology with a major in aerospace technology.
“We’re looking at those two-year degrees from Calhoun because they’re replicating a lot of processes that we use in the factory on a day-to-day basis,” Marshall said. “It’s like hiring someone who already has two years of work experience under their belt.”
The aerospace center is an ongoing story, said Jim Swindell, associate dean of workforce development at Calhoun. The state funded the center’s start-up as part of the successful effort to lure Boeing Co. to Decatur in 1999. The launch-vehicle divisions of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. combined in 2006 as ULA, a joint venture.
For the first three years, the state helped fund the center; it since has supported itself through tuition from its 70 students, plus training programs for technicians at ULA and other area aerospace companies.
Many of the program’s graduates — 38 in 2010 — also have found jobs at Huntsville facilities, including Teledyne Brown Engineering, Griffin Aerospace, Boeing and other contractors for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center or Redstone Arsenal’s missile defense operations.
“We’re already having discussions with ULA on this new group of technicians that they will hire in, to do some of the training at the college,” Swindell said.
ULA’s hiring is to facilitate a 50 percent jump in its build rate for fiscal 2012.
Chris Chavez, a spokesman based at ULA’s Denver headquarters, said the increase applies both to the Delta IV and the Atlas V.
“Our process began in January to add the additional employees to meet our customers’ needs to increase our build rate from four to six boosters for both our Atlas and Delta launch vehicles,” Chavez said. “The new technicians will build rockets including machining, welding and working on final assembly and testing.”
The Decatur facility was designed to produce the Delta IV, formerly a Boeing product. Last year, after extensive renovations, it began final assembly of the Atlas V, formerly a Lockheed product.
The increase comes entirely from governmental customers — mainly the Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Organization and NASA.
“We have a very limited amount of commercial business,” Marshall said. “That’s not our playing field.”
All GPS satellites were launched with rockets currently built by ULA in Decatur, Marshall said, and the company also launches the replacement satellites.
The commercial market that Boeing hoped to tap when it built the Decatur plant has proved elusive, mainly because of the cost of ULA’s satellite-launch vehicles.
“I like to say you really have to look at total cost — the cost of the satellite plus the launch service,” Marshall said. His point is that the satellites typically cost far more than the rocket, and a failed launch results in a useless satellite.
“We do have competitors out there. Everybody’s always asking about SpaceX, but we’ve had a string of launches — 48 in 53 months. But you’re only as good as your last launch,” Marshall said.
“We don’t look at that string because, from a statistical standpoint, the string doesn’t mean anything. It just means that we have a focus on mission success.”
Competitor SpaceX is in the news because of last week’s announcement that it would build a rocket — the Falcon 10 — billed as having twice the lifting power of the Delta IV at one-third of the cost per pound of payload. Reliability is everything in marketing rockets, though, and SpaceX is three years from its first planned launch of the Falcon 10.
“We wish them well in what they are trying to do,” Chavez said. “That’s all I’m going to say on that.”
ULA’s Decatur plant has a workforce of about 1,000, with 655 employees, 315 contractors and a number of government workers. The 1.6 million square-foot building — expanded this year — sits on 350 acres adjoining Red Hat Road.
ULA’s new hires will assist in the ongoing consolidation of ULA. The joint venture was formed — with governmental encouragement — to reduce launch costs. The Air Force did not approve consolidation of the production facilities of the Delta IV and Atlas V until 2009.
“At the end of the day, Harlingen, Texas, and Decatur will be our sole production operations,” Marshall said. The company has moved 75 percent of San Diego’s production to Decatur, and Marshall expects the move to be complete in one year.
The move involves not just equipment and hardware, but people. Marshall said 60 percent of the workers in Denver and San Diego accepted ULA’s offer of a transfer to Decatur, far more than the company had predicted.
“We’re just delighted with it,” Marshall said. “The community has been outstanding.”
Since its formation in December 2006, United Launch Alliance has launched 48 rockets.
It plans to launch the 49th, an Atlas V carrying a classified National Reconnaissance Organization satellite, April 14. Another Atlas V is slated for launch May 4.
When security concerns do not prevent it — as they sometimes do for NRO launches — the company broadcasts the launches at its website, www.ulalaunch.com.