CLAYTON • St. Louis has a long history connected to the United States Space Program. It was here where the Gemini and Mercury capsules were built and some of the first astronauts’ training simulators and early Moon mapping took place during the dawn of space exploration in the 1950s.
Today, as the 2020 Perseverance Mars Rover, NASA’s most complex mission to Mars makes a historic landing on the Red Planet, a company based here in the St. Louis area is responsible for keeping everything powered up with sophisticated batteries that influence every aspect of the flight from launch to landing and beyond.
EaglePicher designs, develops and produces mission-critical power systems. This is their seventh mission to Mars with NASA. For 75 years the company has provided highly reliable power management systems to the space agency. Since 1958, EaglePicher batteries have flown aboard almost every NASA space vehicle, including the shuttles and the International Space Station.
“We’ve really been involved with space and NASA since the beginning of the space program. We powered the first satellite, which was Explorer I back in 1958; and then we have been involved in many of the space programs ongoing since then,” said Heather Smriga, Marketing and Communications Manager at EaglePicher’s headquarters here.
Perseverance’s rechargeable main battery power system, supplied by EaglePicher, gets its power from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator – a nuclear-powered generator – that has been reliably recharging and powering space missions since the earliest days. During the Mars surface operations, EaglePicher batteries will keep the lights on and the motors running for at least two years, giving humanity a longer, better look at the Red Planet.
A previous Rover mission to Mars, Opportunity, was designed for three months of use. The Rover batteries functioned for 15 years beyond the original mission parameters, exemplifying how well these American products perform.
Closer to earth, EaglePicher also makes critical power systems for defense, medical, maritime and scientific purposes.
These batteries are like nothing in a cellphone or laptop; they are over-engineered on purpose.
“To create batteries for these projects, it takes a lot of input from a lot of different people,” Smriga said of the process to make the high-end power cells.
The batteries on board the Perseverance Rover were mostly assembled here in Missouri before being shipped off to NASA.
“We have a facility in East Greenwich, R.I.; they actually develop and manufacture the individual [lithium ion] cells that are used on the Rover,” Smriga explained. “Those then are sent to our Joplin facility where they create the actual battery configuration by putting all the individual cells together into the battery. The testing is done at the Joplin facility, and the thermal batteries that will be used at the entry stage today were made in our Joplin facility.”
EaglePicher employs 900 people in nine manufacturing and research and development sites. Five locations are in the Joplin, Mo., area; the company’s headquarters are in Clayton.
“There is a lot of pride in the company,” Smriga said. “We were founded in 1843 [in Missouri]. We started producing our first batteries in 1920s, began to create batteries for the defense industry in the 1940s, space batteries in the 1950s – so we have this heritage of powering successful missions,” she added.
EaglePicher also makes batteries used in medical devices such as heart pacemakers.