Spokane Journal of Business

Liberty Lake company develops motors for NASA

Frencken America’s parts used in new spacecraft that launched on May 4

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Liberty Lake-based contract equipment manufacturer Frencken America Inc., a division of Malaysia-based Frencken Group Ltd., is celebrating the success of several motors it designed, manufactured, and tested for NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3, or OCO-3.

Jerad Park, mechanical engineer at Frencken America, says the manufacturer specializes in a type of electric motor that uses permanent magnets. In 2013, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory awarded a contract for five of the motors to Frencken America. The project took about a year to complete, Park says.

“It sat on the shelf for a while and we were wondering what was going to happen to it, if it was going to launch,” Park says. “There were a lot of political reasons and things like funding where it was a little bit uncertain whether it would go up.” 

At the time, the Trump administration was proposing to defund the $110 million project, citing budget constraints and other priorities. Congress, however, continued to fund the OCO-3.

Eventually, OCO-3 was given the all-clear to launch, and Park and systems engineer Andrew Bennett traveled to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to watch the launch of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft that carried the observatory.

“It was a little high anxiety,” Park says.

The SpaceX Dragon carrying the OCO-3 launched the morning of May 4 — Star Wars Day, Park points out — and successfully docked onto the International Space Station two days later. In mid-May, Park says Frencken America received video of the motors moving on the OCO-3 as it performed its operations while the ISS orbited the planet.

As Park, Bennett, and project manager Hosanna Schumacher designed and built the motors in Frencken America’s clean room at its 25,000-square-foot Liberty Lake facility, they had to consider how the extremes of outer space would affect the motors.

“There’s a lot of extreme cycles between hot and cold,” Park says. “In terms of the design, there’s a lot of attention that goes into (planning for) those extremes, as well as how we test for these extremes and verify that our calculations and our models will actually be true when it gets out into space.”

The OCO-3 will measure carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere for three years, scanning cities for carbon dioxide output and tracking how well vegetation is absorbing the gas.  

Frencken America has about 50 employees. Park says nearly every employee was involved in the project in some capacity.

“It was a really cool experience to have a small part in something bigger,” he says. “I think everybody over here is pretty proud of that.”

Virginia Thomas
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Reporter Virginia Thomas has worked at the Journal since 2017 and covers the health care industry. As a reporter, she loves learning about Spokane's many growing industries. She enjoys traveling with her husband, snuggling with her cats, and cross stitching.

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