Private contractors are a crucial part of America’s space program. NASA has been partnering with industry since the beginning of the agency, and today, these partnerships range from launch services to research and development.
A recent set of research and development partnerships announced by NASA included many familiar names. But there were also several small businesses that you may not immediately associate with the space program. NASASpaceflight had the opportunity to visit one such partner that has been supporting NASA’s mission for decades.
Bally Ribbon Mills in Bally, Pennsylvania was founded in 1923. Their specialty is manufacturing engineered fabrics and webbing for a wide variety of applications, not least of which is America’s aerospace industry.
Dick Bohannon is Product Development Manager at Bally Ribbon and gave NASASpaceFlight.com a tour of their facility that continues to support current and future spaceflight programs.
Bally Ribbon will be developing a new seamless weave, a weaving pattern for carbon fiber products, to be used on a mechanically deployable carbon fabric heat shield.
The partnership with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley will allow the heat shield to be tested at the Arc Jet Complex. This facility mimics high-altitude atmospheric conditions, hypersonic speeds, and reentry heating to test various thermal protection systems.
Useful insulation materials don’t often have great strength properties. Bohannon explained that woven carbon fiber structures, as opposed to unidirectional ones, offer additional strength than other heat shield materials. The increased strength can also eliminate the need for extra supports or joints, which can reduce the weight of the structure, crucial in aerospace applications.
The new carbon fabric weave will be used in a similar way to the Adaptable Deployable Entry and Placement Technology (ADEPT) deployable heat shield, which used a “spider” weave also developed by Bally Ribbon. ADEPT launched on UP Aerospace’s suborbital SpaceLoft-12 mission last year, demonstrating the deployable carbon fabric heat shield during reentry, descent, and landing.
NASA envisions these deployable heat shields enabling the delivery of larger payloads on interplanetary trajectories, such as Mars entry or sample return missions to Earth. By folding compactly for launch, the heat shields can fit more easily in today’s launch vehicles.
Even ADEPT was not Bally Ribbon’s first heat shield. In 2017, Bally Ribbon partnered with NASA Ames to develop Heatshield for Extreme Entry Environment Technology (HEEET). The mass-efficient properties of carbon fiber over traditional heat shield materials enabled 30 to 40 percent mass savings.
The HEEET technology also enabled mission designs with reduced entry loads, which previously limited the instrumentation hardware that a spacecraft could carry. Bally Ribbon’s work on HEEET earned a Space Technology Award from NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in 2018.
In addition to heat shields, Bally Ribbon has used its Thermal Protection System (TPS) experience to design insulation for the Orion spacecraft. The multi-functional TPS padding is designed to protect NASA astronauts on long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars. According to Bohannon, this TPS will be used for the first time on the upcoming Artemis missions.
Bally Ribbon also fabricates structural components for vehicles using carbon fiber. Bohannon says they’ve developed a separation ring which sits between the core and upper stages of the Space Launch System. He also was able to show NSF another ring that was developed for the European Space Agency, for potential use in Arianespace’s Ariane rocket family.
However, as their name implies, Bally Ribbon Mills work with more than carbon fiber. Parachutes for almost every American space program used webbing produced by Bally Ribbon, including the ribbon parachutes from the Space Shuttle program.
Bohannon remembered the more than one hundred drop tests the space shuttle parachutes had to pass but says modern programs have reduced that number slightly. The material for every extraction, drogue, and main chute for both the orbiter and the solid rocket boosters was produced by Bally Ribbon Mills.
Commercial spaceflight companies have also taken advantage of Bally Ribbon’s expertise. Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule utilized parachutes constructed with Bally Ribbon material. SpaceX continues to use Bally Ribbon’s parachute webbing for their Dragon spacecraft, and even for their original Falcon 9 parachute recovery tests.
Bohannon added that some of their most recent work included redesigning a weave for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which will see both SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner capsules parachuting back to Earth.
Building on decades of experience supporting America’s space program, Bally Ribbon Mills is one of many NASA partners. Small businesses and aerospace corporations continue to be integral for mission success, for both government and commercial spaceflight programs.
But in the words of former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, “the path to Mars goes through Bally, Pennsylvania.”