Dave Messner was 7 years old when he watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.
That moment, as he and his family huddled around the TV, stuck with him.
“I recall vividly being at grandpa’s house and watching Neil walk on the moon,” he said. “That was one of those moments that always stuck with me.”
Now, Messner is vice president and general manager of ATK Aerospace Systems in Goleta. ATK develops technology that has been used to explore the farthest reaches of the solar system and how it works.
“My dad laughed when he said ‘You know, kids say they want to be things when they grow up, you’ve been saying you want to work in space for as long as you can remember and look at you,’” he said.
ATK creates the UltraFlex solar array that powered NASA’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Phoenix Mars Lander that discovered ice on Mars. Most solar arrays have four panels and are made up of two wings, which cost about $3 million each. Each panel is comprised of small rectangular solar cells; each cell costs about $400 to develop and there about 900 on a panel, ATK operations manager Brian Macy said.
“They’re like little batteries,” Macy said. “We string them together in series to build up voltage and align them in parallel to get additional current. It’s just like putting batteries in a flashlight.”
The company launched out of an Old Town loading bay in 1975 as AEC-Able Engineering. Engineers Bob Crawford and Max Benton founded the business that once improved tennis racket design and now creates deployable antenna and solar arrays for space exploration and global positioning.
It found a niche with its coilable boom that deploys from various types of spacecraft when in orbit and developed a partnership with Lockheed Martin, Messner said.
Minneapolis-based ATK — a global company that develops and manufactures tools that support aerospace, defense, security and sporting customers — acquired AEC-Able Engineering in 2004. The company was determined to stay in Goleta and continue its fruitful relationship with UCSB, Messner said.
“Having UCSB as a resource for our engineering staff has been a tremendous value,” he said.
The company wanted to invest in the larger solar array market like the 10-kilowatt arrays, which power larger Lockheed-type spacecraft, but was constrained by the low ceilings in its 56,000-square-foot facility.
ATK’s 2010 expansion to a 25,000-square-foot space at 600 Pine Ave. in Goleta allowed it to pursue lightweight deployables, such as the Orion flexible array that opens like a circular Japanese fan and spans about 20 feet. The design is about a quarter of the weight and more maneuverable than its predecessors, Macy said.
The building also includes a new laboratory, clean room, office and conference space. Both buildings house more than 170 employees and the new space offers room for growth. The efficient expansion wouldn’t have been possible without the City of Goleta’s help, Messner said.
“The city itself has created a sense of community and I think the relationship continues to grow with its businesses,” he said.
Messner still maintains the enthusiasm he felt when he was a kid. It’s exciting to be apart of a company that leads the way in understanding how the world works, he said.
“It’s really neat when we are talking with customers about what the hardware is used for in terms of exploration,” he said. “It’s gratifying, exciting and fun, and the culture of this place is a reflection of what we get out of the things we do.”