Building A Gateway to the Moon

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“This is the only job I’ve ever had.”

With that preface, Paul Johnson, president of USM, Inc., begins explaining what goes on inside a nondescript building located in south Houston. about 10 miles from the Johnson Space Center. The company was founded in 1956 by his father, Steve Johnson, and is now run by Paul and his brother, Chris. When founded, it was known as United Scale Models and built models of petrochemical plants and offshore oil platforms, which were used to create the actual product. It is exacting, intricate work.

“Before auto-cad, everything that was built used a model first,” Paul said.

Steve Johnson, in the 1960s, saw a market in the defense industry and began building mockups, which are full-scale replicas, that were used for training. The company built mockups to train maintenance personnel  on the Chinook helicopter and has been doing the same for various components, as well as simulated cockpit pilot trainers, of the F-22 fighter jet since 1999. These are all very sophisticated models.

“The mockup has to look, smell and feel like the real thing,” Paul said. “The real piece could cost $1 million. If you set the two pieces side-by-side, you can’t tell the difference from the model and the real thing.”

Paul and Chris started working at what became known as USM in high school, as janitors. “We did everything in the summer – welding, machining,” Paul said. Their father urged them to go to college and then come back to ultimately buy him out, completely by 2011. Paul majored in economics and marketing while Chris earned a double engineering degree. Now, Paul oversees sales and marketing and some projects, while Chris runs the production end. USM averages between 20-30 full-time employees but ramps up with contract engineers during large projects, such as while producing mockups of various components of the F-22, when 120 workers were crammed into the facility.

“We had three full-size fuselage trainers in the building, plus four to five cockpits,” Paul said.

USM essentially has two markets – work for the military and NASA, and scale models for companies to use at trade shows. Naturally, the latter dried up during the pandemic, when there were no trade shows. That side of the business is picking up, Paul said, as he took me on a tour of the facility, which is filled with 3D printers, machining tools, a paint booth and all manner of high-tech equipment.

“We do interactive exhibits, animate in 3D, augmented reality, and virtual reality,” Paul said. “The product our client is trying to sell might be too big, too heavy, to take to trade shows.” USM couples interactive models with actual models for companies such as Halliburton and Schlumberger for use in trade shows.

Certainly the most eye-catching project USM is working on is Gateway, which will be an “outpost orbiting the Moon to provide support for a sustainable, long-term human return to the lunar surface, as well as a staging point for deep space exploration,” as explained on the NASA website. Gateway is a critical component of NASA’s Artemis program to eventually send astronauts to Mars. USM is building the full-size HALO (Habitation and Logistics Outpost) astronaut training device for Northrop Grumman. It will be located at the Johnson Space Center in Bldg. 9, the space vehicle mockup facility.

“This is probably my favorite so far,” Paul said. “It’s pretty great when you have actual astronauts in your building.”

He also mentioned working on the F-22, which the company has been providing training mockups for Boeing since 1999.

“We’re still doing the work,” he said. “That was a new-generation fighter. It’s still the best military aircraft in the sky.”

USM’s slogan is “Turning Concepts Into Reality.” The company has been doing so for 65 years and shows no sign of slowing down, whether it’s a full-scale mockup of the Space Station of a prototype for a computer case, as its website notes. Getting a tour of the facility from its president was an unexpected treat.

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