St. Charles family business among those helping NASA reach the stars
As schoolchildren growing up in the 1960s, Mike Cain and his brothers, Bob and John, had the coolest stories to tell their classmates.
Their grandfather and father, Clyde and Robert, ran a fairly new St. Charles company that was a subcontractor to a company working on the Apollo space mission, creating heat exchangers coils that were used in Apollo command modules.
"For us, it was an exciting show-and-tell piece to bring in samples and tell everyone that dad and grandpa were working on this stuff," Mike Cain said, "All of our classmates and everyone in the community were getting real excited about it."
Although he cannot verify his grandfather's products were on board Apollo 11 when it made its historic voyage culminating with Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon on July 20, 1969, Mike can say for sure that they were a part of the earlier missions that led up to that trip.
Fast forward 50 years, and Mike, Bob and John are third-generation owners of Cain Tubular Products, a manufacturer of custom tube bending, coiling, forming and joining products for a number of industries and projects -- including NASA space programs.
With the possible exception of Chicago-based Boeing Co., most people might be hard-pressed to name an Illinois company that does business with NASA. In reality, hundreds of businesses in the state work directly or subcontract work with the federal agency. NASA lists 128 Illinois companies as suppliers for its Deep Space Exploration System, which is working on developing the next generation space exploration system for manned and unmanned missions to the moon and Mars. That ranks Illinois eighth in the number of companies working on the project.
Many of those companies are small businesses and their contributions range from the heat exchanger coils made by Cain Tubular Products to semiconductors developed by Bolingbrook-based EPIR Technologies that are in the Hitomi satellite, a joint NASA-Japan space agency mission exploring phenomena such as black holes, supernova remnants and galaxy clusters.
For Cain, its work with NASA on the J2X engine -- developed for the agency's Space Launch System program -- earned the company the Honoree Award, NASA's highest honor for suppliers.
John Cain notes that project helped put their company in NASA's spotlight, and they have been called on to help with solving other problems, such as converting engines built for the former Space Shuttle program for use in current rocket programs.
"Our niche is very specific to them," he said, adding much of the company's work is done as subcontractor to larger companies who receive contracts.
Mike Cain said working with the agency can be very slow and demanding, but also extremely rewarding.
"It's a higher level that you'll work with, but they're the greatest people you'll ever work with. They're the best of the best," he said.
Their relationship with the agency has also given them the opportunity to travel the country to witness tests in the Space Launch System program. It also earned Mike Cain a trip to Cape Canaveral, Florida, this past weekend to be a part of NASA's 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
"It was just awe, being there with the people and walking the grounds where it all happened," Mike said, noting there was a full moon during the evening of the event.
"To be a part of something that you know is much great than all of us, that's pretty cool," he added.