Hypersonic: Mahoning Valley’s Next Frontier

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The newest tenant moving into the Youngstown Business Incubator’s Tech Block Building No. 5 could set the stage for Youngstown to become a major player in the U.S. hypersonic sector.

Ursa Major Technologies is a Colorado-based designer and manufacturer of liquid-propulsion engines and solutions-provider to customers in the hypersonic and space launch industries. Additive manufacturing is at the core of its engine designs, says Jake Bowles, manager of advanced manufacturing and materials. Rockets produced by Ursa Major are 80% completed used 3D printing.

The company is setting up space inside the Tech Block building for a new project in collaboration with the YBI and America Makes. In September, YBI announced Ursa Major was hiring two full-time additive manufacturing employees for the project, a development engineer and a technician.

“We have a commitment to pushing the boundaries on 3D printing from a technology development standpoint,” Bowles says. “As a part of this project, working with America Makes and YBI, this project will help us further that cause.”

Ursa Major is screening candidates for the jobs and will have equipment arrive in the coming weeks. By the first quarter of 2022, it will be operational from a development standpoint, Bowles says.

The Youngstown team will collaborate with the advanced manufacturing group at the headquarters of the Colorado company to produce rocket components for development engines that will be tested in the field.

“We’re manufacturing hardware and it’s not sitting on a shelf for a year or two years waiting to go on an engine,” he says. “We’re putting that on an engine, getting test time and delivering engines to customers.”

Components will be developed for hypersonic flight and weapon systems for the Department of Defense, says Randy Gilmore, vice president and chief development officer for the National Center For Defense Manufacturing And Machining, or NCDMM, which manages America Makes in Youngstown. Workers will use laser powder bed fusion machines and other additive manufacturing processes to manufacture the parts.

“They build their rocket engines completely with additive manufacturing,” Gilmore says. “They can basically push a button and walk away and have a nearly completed rocket engine that’s capable of hypersonic flight.”

Because of the friction created during hypersonic flight, Ursa Major needs to develop alternative 3D printing materials that can withstand the heat the rockets generate, Gilmore explains.

The YBI satellite location will be responsible for testing newly developed materials for their thermal properties, strength and stress-resistance.

“We’ll be working in Youngstown with them on developing basically material recipes – the ability to print materials that are currently not mainstream to be printed,” Gilmore says.

Initially, the rockets developed will be “one-shot deal engines.” Other applications for the rockets, however, will require reusability. “So they need to look at that aspect as well at some point,” he adds.

The project is being funded by $10 million in federal monies secured by U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio, who is vice chairman of the Defense Appropriations Committee. The committee has approved another $10 million installment. That budget, however, still needs to be introduced in the Senate, says NCDMM’s Gilmore.

“While it’s not a slam dunk quite yet … we’re very hopeful,” he says.

Bowles credits the efforts of America Makes and Ryan for introducing Ursa Major to the YBI. Without having YBI to house everything, setting up the Youngstown location “would be a heck of a lot harder,” he says.

Within a few weeks of being awarded the contract, Bowles came to Youngstown to tour YBI and meet with its staff.

“They’re really invested in accommodating us and helping us stand up this capability in Youngstown,” he says. “Without them, it would be significantly harder to actually stand up this capability.”

Digital Engineering Streamlines Process

Ursa Major will work closely with The University of Texas at El Paso’s NASA Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research, which is establishing a satellite office of its own inside the Taft Technology Center at the YBI.

The UTEP research center is one of the largest among U.S. universities, with more than 200 student assistants and “major capabilities,” says Ahsan Choudhuri, chairman of the university’s department of mechanical engineering and director of the center. Research at the center focuses on space, defense and energy, he says.

UTEP has expertise in hypersonic technology and heat flux modeling, as well as digital design and engineering. Its YBI office will conduct digital modeling and simulation testing for the engines that Ursa Major produces in lieu of physically testing the rockets.

This is “hugely important,” says NCDMM’s Gilmore. The United States has fewer than five testing wind tunnels capable of handling hypersonic speeds. The backlog to use those tunnels for testing exceeds one year.

Digital engineering will cut down on the testing cycle, making it more cost-effective and getting the project from design to flight in a shorter period of time, he says.

Hypersonic travel is anything that flies faster than Mach 5, which is five times the speed of sound, Choudhuri says. It’s been pursued by the United States for both civilian and military applications since the 1960s when the X-15 hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft was built.

Part of the motivation at the time was to build an aircraft fast enough to evade enemy defenses when making a strike, he says. Knowledge gained from the X-15 program was eventually put to use in the space shuttle program.

The biggest challenge in developing a hypersonic aircraft is the heat generated by the friction created between the vehicle and the air.

“Thermal management is a huge issue,” Choudhuri says.

Work at the YBI will allow UTEP to test materials made by Ursa Major to address thermal management. UTEP will leverage knowledge gained from projects it’s worked on for NASA and translate that capability to hypersonic vehicle thermal management, he says.

There’s also a national defense angle. As the nation’s hypersonic technology research wound down over the last few decades, rival countries like China and Russia “quickly took advantage of that” and pushed their research forward to build hypersonic missiles, according to Choudhuri.

“We didn’t think that was really needed,” he says. “We could place our aircraft carriers – we could place many other assets near the battlefield and strike through our cruise missiles – which are subsonic.”

The YBI project is key to keeping pace with other countries, which appear to be “significantly ahead of us on the curve. And that’s never a good position to be in,” NCDMM’s Gilmore says.

Developing hypersonic weapons, however, needs to be less costly. According to a report Oct. 12 from Reuters, the Pentagon advised defense contractors they need to reduce the cost to develop hypersonic weapons, which Reuters reports currently costs tens of millions of dollars per unit.

Ursa Major tests a Hadley engine for small launchers. Photo credit: Ursa Major Technologies

By comparison, cruise missiles cost less than $5 million each. But they are inferior to hypersonic weapons because of their shorter range, and are slower and more vulnerable to being detected and shot down, Reuters reported.

Much of the cost of hypersonics is derived from development and testing environments being difficult to replicate, explains Ursa Major CEO Joe Laurienti.

“Ursa Major’s approach allows us to service partners that test components at hypersonic velocity without the need for a wind tunnel, while simultaneously developing our defenses against enemy hypersonic weapons,” Laurienti says. “We can help bring down the ultimate cost of hypersonic technologies by diversifying the way they are tested and developed.”

Using UTEP’s digital design process will allow testing to occur digitally before the hardware or prototype are even built, “which is a paradigm shift from what we do right now,” Choudhuri says.

“It can shorten the development cycle from 12 years to two years,” he says.

Equipment has been purchased and he expects the UTEP storefront to start coming together with staff by mid-November, he says. The Texas university looks also to partner with YSU, the YBI and local businesses.

Reimagining the Mahoning Valley Workforce

In addition to national defense, this project has the potential to position Youngstown as a national leader in hypersonic technology.

For that to happen, the hypersonic workforce needs to be rebuilt.

As the United States slowed its hypersonic development, research funding at the university level dwindled, Choudhuri says, and no students who could do the work are being graduated.

UTEP was approached by NCDMM and U.S. Rep. Ryan because of its history of student-driven programs to see if that capability could be expanded to Youngstown and “to take students from that ecosystem and really retrain them in hypersonics,” he says.

“That was a good proposition for us,” he says. “This is [Ryan’s] really huge vision that also brought us there, as well as YBI. The things they’re trying to do to reimagine that area’s manufacturing is commendable.”

The University of Texas at El Paso is known for workforce development. In the last decade, its Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research produced more than 600 Hispanic engineers for the aerospace and defense industry in the country.

In Youngstown, UTEP will recruit students from area colleges and universities, as well as high schools, and tech and career centers to work on an 18-month project. The experience will “up-skill them fairly quickly” in digital engineering and hypersonic technology, Choudhuri says.

“Our presence in Youngstown is strengthening that ecosystem by not only bringing our research and development capabilities, but our track record of workforce development for the aerospace and defense industry,” he says. “That is our major role on this project.”

As the Mahoning Valley workforce starts to better its skills with hypersonic technology, some will leave the area for jobs with major manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, he allows. “But as you start to produce more talent, re-skill and up-skill your existing workforce to support the DOD, I think you will see progress” in developing the local workforce.

This will also set the stage to engage the traditional manufacturing workforce in the area to help to produce components being designed by local engineers, Choudhuri adds.

“This type of project is the backbone of rebuilding or reimagining your manufacturing sector,” he says. “Because U.S. defense manufacturing capability is eroding very quickly, we’re in a dangerous situation in terms of not having adequate manufacturing capability. You don’t want Chinese-made electronics in your missiles.”

The United States is close to that level, he says, and has no choice but to rebuild its defense manufacturing capability. And that cannot be done while ignoring traditional manufacturing hubs like Youngstown, he says.

Ursa Major’s Bowles agrees, saying this project could be the first step toward something bigger.

The project will produce real developmental results and real components in Youngstown “that ultimately do affect the success of the United States’ hypersonics program,” he says.

And if the collaboration with YBI proves fruitful, Ursa Major would “certainly consider” expanding its own operations locally.

“It has a real chance of taking hold in the area,” Bowles says.

Pictured: Joe Laurienti, CEO and founder of Ursa Major Technologies, with the Hadley engine. Photo: Ursa Major.