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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane-based Hi-Rel Laboratories is the only NASA contractor in Eastern Washington to work on new manned mission to the moon

Sen. Maria Cantwell looks over Ryan Winkler’s shoulder during a tour Monday of the Hi-Rel Laboratories failure analysis lab in Spokane. Owner Trevor Devaney watches at center in the background. Of the 41 companies in Washington working with NASA on the Artemis Program, Hi-Rel is the only one in Eastern Washington.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Defects as small as 1/10,000th the diameter of a human hair can cause catastrophic failure aboard a spacecraft.

Spokane-based Hi-Rel Laboratories is one of the few companies contracted by NASA, private defense contractors and a burgeoning commercial space industry to search for these imperfections and put a stop to them before a spacecraft is sent out into the solar system.

Touring the north Spokane facility Monday afternoon, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell said Hi-Rel will be critical “to get us back to the moon.”

“You want to know you’re not going to have a material failure be the cause of a whole critical system element being taken out of function. And this lab here in Spokane is doing that work,” said Cantwell, who is the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

“One of the next missions for our nation is to return to the moon in preparation to go onto Mars and the success and viability of that mission will be dependent on the success of all of the manufacturers working together and the ability to not have some sort of mistake or system failure in space. We want to test out that right here.”

Hi-Rel Laboratories is one of 41 companies in Washington to contribute to NASA’s Artemis program, and the only one located in Eastern Washington. The mission intends to create a sustained human presence on the moon for the first time since the Apollo program and use that permanent base to study the feasibility of astronaut-manned spaceflight to Mars.

The Spokane-based firm will test several different internal components for Artemis’ Orion spacecraft and its Space Launch System rocket and a lunar gateway down to the surface of the moon. NASA will ship these components to Spokane so the company’s engineers can test and inspect them with highly specialized microscopes and other devices.

“My whole career has been ‘What doesn’t belong here?’ ” Hi-Rel president Trevor Devaney said, explaining that minute errors in these parts often do not materialize until after years of use. His company’s specialized detection is needed to create “sustainability in space,” especially as manned spaceflights take place farther from earth.

In one instance Devaney cited, if a certain malfunction had not been spotted by his team, a solid rocket booster might not have functioned properly when astronauts were on board.

“We know what happens when that doesn’t work. People die,” Devaney said in an interview.

First founded by Devaney’s father in 1968, Hi-Rel Laboratories originally had nothing to due with space at all – using their skills to detect forgeries in rare, old and valuable coins. They soon learned there was little money in that trade and pivoted to other ways to use the technology, including space.

“What my father didn’t realize is, nobody wanted to find out a coin is a fake after they’ve bought it,” Devaney said.

Originally based in California, much of the company’s growth was fueled by the Cold War-era space race. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, the company fell into decline. The company was saved in the mid-’90s when it was selected to work on the International Space Station.

“That station is still going strong because we did the testing,” Devaney told Cantwell – pointing to a scale replica of the International Space Station.

Now under Delaney’s leadership, the company relocated to Spokane, which many customers “thought was crazy.” But boosted by a lower cost of living in the Inland Northwest, Spokane has been “the best place for us,” he said.

Hi-Rel was recruited from Southern California by the Spokane Area Economic Development Council in 1992, according to previous Spokesman-Review reports.

Devaney did admit inflation since the pandemic has made it difficult to recruit and retain his employees. Cantwell said it is imperative Washington state continue to be a hub for aerospace-related businesses like Hi-Rel Laboratories.

“There’s 150,000 people in our state that work in aerospace supply chain, and this company is an example of that. The Spokane-Coeur d’Alene corridor is a great example of a microcosm of that supply chain. And we want to grow that capacity, because there’s a lot in the next level of innovation, and we think that some of that can happen right here,” she said.

In 2022, the Puget Sound Regional Council released a report showing Washington’s space industry doubled in size over four years, generating $4.6 billion and more than 13,000 jobs.

Devaney recruits most of his staff locally from places like Eastern Washington University and Spokane Community College. Given the highly specialized and rare nature of the job, many of the skills needed to operate Hi-Rel’s testing equipment are not taught in any university. New hires generally learn on the job at the company’s onsite classroom.

“We don’t hire across the country because I would much rather work with people that want to be here – that like it here that want to stay here and grow with us,” Devaney said.

“Something I learned from my father is a person’s ability is not defined by their degree. A degree is just an indicator of the merit someone might have.”

Devaney sees a bright future for his industry, in large part due to the advent of commercial space flight, which he believes will “bring space to the common man.”

“I think you’re gonna see commercial space stations in the next decade,” he said – pointing to the Elon Musk-owned SpaceX or Axiom Space, which hopes to create the first commercial space station.

“Someone soon will find a way to make space profitable. And that will change everything.”

During the tour, the business owner encouraged Cantwell to expand the CHIPS Act, which she helped pass last year. The bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act allocated $280 billion in scientific research and manufacturing, including $52.7 billion in subsidies to boost domestic production of semiconductor chips. The law is intended to boost U.S. manufacturing and make the country competitive with China and the rest of Asia in microchip production.

Devaney told the senator the bill may be a Pyrrhic victory for domestic production if Asia continues to out-compete the U.S. in production of the packaging associated with those chips.

“We will have these pieces of silicon. But what about the packaging around that silicon? That’s where we’re lacking,” he said . “We don’t have the packaging and assembly houses. That is all being done in Asia. It’s a big ask, because that’s a lot of money that has to be invested in the packaging.

“What good is if you have the chip here but we can’t use it?”