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ILC Dover renews focus on space in Frederica

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ILC Dover’s plant in Frederica is refocusing on the space program under a new $6 million investment by the company. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

FREDERICA – The future of spaceflight in some ways begins in a manufacturing plant in rural Kent County.

The Frederica production plant for ILC Dover about 10 miles south of Dover has produced spacesuits for NASA astronauts dating back to the Apollo program in the 1960s. It branched out to produce other military equipment like gas masks, but spacesuits slowed as NASA mothballed its manned space missions in the 2010s.

ILC branched out to diversify its portfolio and began working on pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical products that quickly became an important revenue driver. In the past few years, however, aerospace production has picked back up as NASA has planned new missions and the increasingly crowded commercial sector for space offers new possibilities.

Jinny Ferl, director of engineering for ILC’s Space Systems who has been with the company for 35 years, said the opportunities ahead are unlike anything she’s seen.

“We’re a lot bigger and there’s a lot more potential out there with the emerging commercial space market. So, it’s pretty exciting,” she said.

That surge has led ILC to return to its space roots in Delaware, moving its pharmaceutical production to an existing Mexico plant and investing upward of $6 million into its plant to build new production lines, add innovative tools, increase its testing and quality assurance capabilities, and consolidate a Seaford storage site.

ILC Dover spacesuit

ILC Dover’s pressurized spacesuits have been used by NASA astronauts dating back to the Apollo program. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

ILC currently builds spacesuits for astronauts going to the International Space Station (ISS) and is designing the spacesuits for Boeing’s next-generation Starliner spacecraft that will one day ferry crews to it. It is also partnering with the Colorado-based company Sierra Space on the development of next-generation spacesuits and a giant inflatable module that could be deployed into low-Earth orbit as a smaller, and cheaper, version of the ISS. It pressurizes a patented soft material stitched by ILC that turns into enough space for a three-story building.

About 175 people work out of the production plant on an hourly basis, but 420 workers are assigned to the site around the region, according to Kent Jones, Frederica site director for ILC. The company is currently hiring for both degree and non-degree positions, including engineers, sewers, welders, quality technicians and more.

“Everything that is imaginable between making the product, designing the product and thinking of what the future product is going to be, is here at Federica,” he said.

ILC Dover sewing Frederica Delaware

Dozens of sewers stitch together the spacesuits for astronauts by hand or sewing machine at the ILC Dover plant in Frederica. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ILC DOVER

Ironically, while its finished products will be used in technologically demanding environments, ILC Dover has developed its high-quality reputation through more tactile means – literally. Rows of sewers worked on detailed stitches by hand or sewing machines to build the eight layers of an astronaut’s glove, giving them comfort, function and protection from thermal radiation and temperature swings.

It’s tedious work that can take up to a month to see one finished glove, but the workers are proud of the products they create, Ferl said.

With sewing quickly becoming a forgotten skill for many young people, however, Jones said that it is getting harder to find the right workforce. It led ILC to create a three-month internal upskilling program that can help teach semi-skilled workers to reach the meticulous quality needed for spacesuits. The company also has a relationship with the University of Delaware’s fashion design program, where it seeks undergrads who have sewing skills but also an interest in technology.

This production line in Frederica makes the airbag that cushions return capsules. The composite fabric is specially handwoven by teams in Delaware. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

The Frederica plant doesn’t only work on hand-stitched spacesuit products like gloves and thermal garments though. It also produces products that are much larger in size – like the Goodyear blimp large.

The facility produces lighter-than-air vehicles, like blimps and aerostats, that can take up to a year to build by gluing and sealing long strips of material together in a warehouse that is hundreds of feet long, Jones explained. A few times a year, the entire staff of the plant is called in to test and folder the material that makes a blimp.

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