Carson manufacturer’s gear box rides space shuttle to help repair Hubble telescope
When the space shuttle’s flying repair team tears into the Hubble telescope to replace its failed gyroscopes, gears manufactured by a Carson City company will be spinning in NASA’s electric wrench.
Payload commander Steven Smith and mission specialist John Grunsfeld are expected to begin the repair work on the Hubble today. The telescope was grappled from its orbit Tuesday afternoon and secured onto a special repair table in shuttle Discovery’s bay.
CGI Inc., located at 3400 Arrowhead Drive, built a slightly modified double-stage planetary gearhead for the wrench being used on the Hubble repair mission, according to CGI western regional sales manager Jerry Allred.
“It’s basically our standard size 23 gearhead. NASA wanted a special output shaft with a square drive for the sockets,” Allred said Tuesday. “And we had to use a specific lubricant to reduce ‘out-gassing.’ “
Out-gassing is the release of aromatic hydrocarbons from a petroleum-type product, which gives grease its smell. Since the astronauts are living in a sealed environment, NASA is cautious about what chemicals are released into their breathing air.
While the gearbox is slightly different from CGI’s standard line, Allred said it was produced individually rather than as part of a production run in order to meet contract tolerances and specifications, he said.
The wrench gearbox is only the latest of many components CGI had produced for NASA, he said.
A small gearbox is a part of the equipment installed during the Hubble telescope “fix” several years earlier, he said. The Hubble did not focus as clearly as intended after its launch, so astronauts installed a corrective assembly including the CGI gears. Since that repair, the Hubble has taken thousands of images of the universe.
The wires powering the satellite telescope’s gyroscopes eventually corroded and the Hubble has been inoperative since November. The current repair effort will put the orbiting observatory back into operation.
“We had provided a number of gearheads to NASA, but we don’t know where most of them end up,” Allred said.
“We just get a set of specifications and we build what they order.”
CGI has a good reputation in the aerospace industry, he said. The company sells some of its stock products directly, but three large distribution companies also sell the gearheads as private labels or house brands.
Sizes range from gear boxes with two-inch-diameter shafts that handle 27,000 pounds of torque to tiny assemblies for surgical tools.
“We make a small spur gear that operates at 72,000 revolutions per minute, which is used as the output for a sternum saw,” he said. That’s what a surgeon used to split open a patient’s chest for heart surgery. “Besides having to be reliable at incredibly high speeds, those have to be able to be autoclaved – sterilized by hot steam.”
Allred said owners Don and Jan Snow moved their 16-person operation from southern California to Carson City nine years ago because they love Lake Tahoe and the western Nevada area. The company now has eight times the shop space and 62 employees.