Volume 03, Issue 4
Rollin’ on the river
Positive attitude helps Delta rocket team to forge high-tech success over seven years in Decatur, Ala.
BY DOUG SHORES
A few years ago, what is now the largest, most state-of-the-art launch vehicle factory in the world was just a cotton field in Decatur, Ala.
Here, Southern hospitality, history and tradition have met with cutting-edge technology within the confines of the Boeing Delta rocket plant, a 1.5 million-square-foot facility that produces some of the finest rockets in the world.
The Delta plant, the result of collaborative efforts by Boeing and local, state and federal officials, represents a new chapter for the Delta program, because it was built to manufacture a new family of launch vehicles—from the Delta II to the Delta IV and Delta IV Heavy. The Delta IV line of rockets was designed as part of the U.S. Air Force Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program that was created to provide assured access to space for critical national defense payloads.
Decatur’s location on the Tennessee River about 30 miles west of Huntsville gave the city the waterway access that was a key factor in Boeing’s selection—as well as its “River City” name. New Delta IV boosters travel 1.5 miles from the factory to the river before they’re loaded on the Delta Mariner—a ship designed specifically to transport Delta IV boosters—for a ride all the way to the launch sites at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
Boeing officials and area government officials broke ground for the Delta plant in 1997. Forty-three months later, the first common booster core rolled out of the facility.
More than 36,000 people submitted resumes for 600 positions, which allowed Boeing’s Decatur hiring team to be very selective. Attitude was as important for applicants as strong technical skills.
“It’s great if you are a technical expert, but if you can’t work well with other people you are not going to get as much accomplished,” said Steve Crow, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems manager of Structures Engineering and Mission Assurance. “We got the best of the best and that is apparent every time I walk out on the floor.”
Susan Moore, Boeing IDS director, People and Administration, was part of the lengthy evaluation process for new hires. “Potential employees had to go through more than eight hours of testing before they could even be considered for an interview,” Moore said.
The team found it more difficult to start from scratch than they expected.
“When we first started, everything had to be done,” said Gordon Bergstue, Boeing IDS director, Technical Resources. “We had to set up phone lines, and get connected to the outside world—all the things you take for granted when you move into an established site. You expect that there will be a chair and a computer for you. We had to start at the very beginning. We didn’t even have a mailing address. There were a lot of simple things that you don’t think about. It was kind of like camping out.”
Even the weather caused problems for the newly assembled team.
“We were building hardware before the facility was completed. In January of 1999, we had a really cold week in Decatur. The north wall wasn’t closed in yet,” Crow recalled. “It was like the tundra. You walked in and it was freezing cold, yet we were still building hardware. It was kind of funny. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but they quickly reprioritized the construction contractor to put that wall up on the north side. It was a lot more comfortable after they did that.”
On Nov. 20, 2002, the first Delta IV rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, delivering a communications satellite for Eutelsat. “There were tears everywhere. We were all so proud,” Moore said. “It’s tough to put into words our feelings that day.”
Two more Delta IV rockets have launched successfully since then: U.S. Air Force communications satellite DSCS III A3 lifted off in March and DSCS III B6 launched in August of that year. The first Delta IV Heavy is scheduled to launch this fall from Cape Canaveral.
The Delta IV Heavy can lift 28,000 pounds (about 12,700 kilograms) to geosynchronous transfer orbit. It incorporates three common booster cores to provide the necessary boost to fly a heavy payload into orbit. The first launch of the Delta IV Heavy will be a major milestone for the Delta team, and all eyes in Decatur will be watching the event.
“It’s going to be very exciting when the Delta IV Heavy lifts off,” said Production Technician Tharnel Washington. “It’s everything that we have worked so hard for. I’m ready to see it happen.”
In July of this year, Boeing IDS transferred all Delta II rocket production, along with 70 employees, from Pueblo, Colo., to Decatur as part of a consolidation. There are now more than 660 employees at Decatur.
The Delta II’s 98-percent success rate makes it the most reliable launch vehicle in its class. Delta II rockets are smaller than their Delta IV counterparts, and serve the U.S. Air Force, NASA and commercial customers.
Phil Marshall, Boeing IDS general manager at Decatur, held the same position at the Pueblo facility before he came to Decatur in May 2003. He continues to be impressed with the ingenuity and determination of his team.
“I don’t think that anyone that I have worked with here is ever satisfied with maintaining status quo,” Marshall said. “We try to improve every day.”
North Alabama has embraced the Boeing team. Decatur Mayor Lynn Fowler and a few members of his staff even traveled to Pueblo to help recruit potential employees and sing the praises of the local community.
“What you see down here is truly a partnership not only with Decatur and Morgan County but all of northern Alabama,” Marshall said. “The local political leadership is glad we are here, and that helps to make it a very positive work environment.”
The Boeing site leadership at Decatur takes pride in its commitment to Employee Involvement, implementing a new Employee Involvement plan this year. Decatur employees have embraced this philosophy.
“Employee Involvement is the basis of how we do business in Decatur on a day-today basis,” said Shane McGregor, a Boeing IDS production technician on the Chemical Process Team. “With EI, you understand the flow of the factory, and what your customer needs. We have the chance to make a lot of decisions here in Decatur. I know the job that I do has an impact on the success of this place.”
The technology and high-tech machinery used to assemble the Delta IV Heavy and the other Delta rockets is impressive, but the people leave the strongest impression.
“Our people have a real drive to be successful,” Bergstue said. “This facility would be nothing without our team. You can see it when you walk through the building. There’s just a sparkle in people’s eyes, and that comes from the excitement about what we are doing.”
Since the Air Force suspended the Delta program in July 2003, the Decatur team has redoubled its commitment to building the best launch vehicles in the world.
“The bottom line is that our people are the key to the success of the facility and the program. We continue to focus on flawless execution and mission assurance,” Marshall said. “Our Decatur logo and mantra, ‘Attitude, Action, Results,’ says it all. Bringing in the people with the right attitude and taking the right actions allows us to achieve exceptional results.”
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