MYRTLE CREEK — Bill Michalek’s morning hello comes with an offer of a cup of coffee.
“We have delicious Folger’s instant because that’s what I drink, and the guy who drinks real coffee is not here this morning,” Michalek says.
He’s wearing a blue polo with a silver dollar-sized NASA insignia on it. Michalek is the director of Umpqua Research Company in Myrtle Creek.
Behind the company’s inconspicuous offices across from Millsite Park, researchers are building machines that might be on board the first manned trip to Mars.
The company has been working with NASA and other aerospace firms since the early 1970s. It developed a water purification device that was on the first NASA space shuttle missions, a microbial check valve that fits in one hand.
“There’s probably one out in Texas somewhere from that shuttle that blew up,” Michalek said.
In 2007, URC was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame.
Michalek and his team are developing technologies that help astronauts do something people don’t often think about on Earth — breathe.
During long trips into space — potentially several years to and from Mars — giving crews a constant supply of oxygen isn’t easy, Michalek said. Spacecrafts can’t carry tanks with all the oxygen crew members need throughout an entire mission because weight in space is expensive.
“We pretty much focus on the nuts and bolts of things, and we gotta recycle oxygen,” Michalek said.
When people exhale, they breathe out carbon dioxide. The key to providing astronauts with a steady stream of oxygen for long periods of time in space is recycling oxygen contained in the carbon dioxide that people exhale.
Michalek said a promising technology called a Bosch reactor, which URC is currently developing for NASA, could be the most efficient way to recycle oxygen ever developed.
“The reaction has been known for a long time, we can do it,” said laboratory director Tom Williams, the guy who drinks real coffee, according to Michalek.
Williams wasn’t in the lab early that day because a machine that automatically analyzes samples wasn’t working the night before. He was there until midnight analyzing samples manually.
The Bosch reactor uses hydrogen to decompose carbon dioxide that people exhale when onboard a spacecraft. The reaction produces water, which can be separated into oxygen for astronauts to breathe, and hydrogen, which can be recycled to decompose more exhaled carbon dioxide.
But the reaction also produces solid carbon. And figuring out a way to safely contain the solid carbon byproduct is the hard part in developing a Bosch reactor.
“The innovation here is developing an effective way for this reaction to take place and to capture that carbon,” Williams said.
From the outside, the Bosch reactor in the lab of Umpqua Research Company looks like a 10-foot metal cylinder with tubes leading in and out. But inside the reactor, carbon dioxide is being decomposed to produce oxygen at temperatures up to 600 degrees Celsius.
Michalek pointed at black dust on the floor around the reactor and said, “You get this really fine carbon powder, which at zero (gravity) goes everywhere. It gets on everything.”
The company is near the end of the second phase of NASA funding for the project. The goal is to make the Bosch reactor flight-ready. In the first phase, NASA awarded contracts to four research teams, including URC, who proposed methods of recycling oxygen. Two of the teams were from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and the other was from the University of Texas at Arlington.
Michalek and Williams both grew up in Douglas County. Michalek is from Roseburg and Williams is from Sutherlin. After spending years away from the area studying advanced chemical engineering and chemistry, the scientists said they’re privileged to be back working on projects that help advance space research.
“It’s great because we get to live in rural Oregon,” Williams said.
One downside of being a business that needs highly skilled workers in a rural area is that it’s difficult to find skilled workers who are willing to move to the area, he said.
Michalek said sometimes it’s hard to keep people aware of the work URC does, especially the people who influence NASA’s budget.
“Our representatives in Congress don’t even know we’re here,” Michalek said with a smile. “We have to remind them every once in a while when the NASA budget comes up and say, ‘Hey! People in your district rely on the NASA budget, so pass it.’”