With the touchdown of the orbiter Atlantis July 21, the American Space Shuttle program officially ended. In addition to the well-publicized Tucson connection of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, the final days of the program carried another Southern Arizona link.
Packed away among the assorted experiments aboard the shuttle's second to last mission, the Kelly commanded Endeavour, was the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) project.
Tucson engineering firm Lindel Engineering built components for the experiment, which The Planetary Society sponsored.
"We were really excited to participate in this program," Marcos Martinez said, Lindel's general manager.
Lindel was hired to build a set of titanium capsules designed to hold microorganisms that were tested in the orbiting environment.
"It was quite challenging to make these little capsules," Martinez said. "They had to be incredibly strong, durable and sealed 100 percent."
The company chose titanium because it could meet the specifications experiment coordinators set and for the material's ability to withstand extreme heat.
The goal of the LIFE experiment was to observe the effects of low-orbit space flight on selected organisms. Among the organisms chosen for the experiment was an unusual specimen that has adapted to survive in the harsh high-arsenic environment of California's Mono Lake.
But the main purpose of the space shuttle LIFE experiment was to serve as a dry run for a scheduled unmanned flight to the Martian moon Phobos.
Later this year, the Russian space agency plans to land a craft on Phobos, the smaller of the two Martian moons, and collect samples to return to earth.
The LIFE experiment, housed in capsules Lindel will make, will tag along for the 34-month long ride.
"They're designed with very harsh conditions in mind," said Bruce Betts, director of projects for The Planetary Society.
Betts said the capsules would have to withstand impact forces equivalent to 4,000 times Earth's gravity when they collide with Phobos on board the Russian ship. Extreme resilience also would be necessary when the capsules are jettisoned from the space craft back into Earth's atmosphere where they will be collected for study.
Betts said the experiment would test the origin theory called panspermia. The theory speculates that life has been dispersed throughout the universe carried inside meteorites and asteroids.
"No one has ever done what we're doing with Phobos LIFE," Betts said.
Lindel plans to build the capsules for the Phobos project in the coming months.
In addition to the space exploration project, Lindel has made precision-engineered components used in the optical sciences. Martinez also said the company has built parts for a Colorado-based firm that had a hand in constructing Google's earth imaging satellite.
Having contributed to some high-profile projects, Martinez said the company is anxiously waiting for the next challenge.
"We're kind of excited for what's next," he said.
Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at email@example.com or (520) 295-4259.