The Egg Came First
Nearly 35 years ago, middle school student and eventual Techshot co-founder, President and CEO John C. Vellinger entered a science fair competition sponsored by the National Science Teachers association and NASA. His concept of a space-based incubator capable of caring for growing chicken embryos was well received not only by the fair’s judges, but also by the university and space agency scientists who had taken notice of his entry.
For several years Vellinger continued to improve his concept. In 1985, while a freshman at Purdue University, he was notified by officials with NASA’s Shuttle Student Involvement Program that a corporate sponsor had taken an interest in his project. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) had agreed to help him realize his dream of building a flight-qualified incubator and it would be launched aboard space shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51L.
With the January 1986 launch just eight months away, Vellinger reported to KFC headquarters in Louisville, Ky., and began work on the payload with company engineer and eventual Techshot co-founder Mark Deuser. Though developing spaceflight equipment was new to both of them, they worked quickly to build and flight-qualify an innovative system for incubating 32 growing chicken embryos in the microgravity environment of space.
Vellinger and Deuser trained Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe and her back up, Barbara Morgan, to maintain the unit, dubbed “Chix in Space” by KFC. Deuser was one of the last inside Challenger when he personally checked on the operational status of the device prior to shuttle’s launch on January 28, 1986.
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What happened 73 seconds after Challenger’s 11:38 a.m. liftoff stunned the world. Following the tragic loss of the crew, the orbiter and the Chix payload, Vellinger returned to student life at Purdue University and Deuser continued his work developing custom equipment for KFC restaurants.
But it wasn’t long before they got the call for which they’d hoped. NASA and KFC would give the pair another chance to build and launch their payload. In March of 1989, more than three years after the Challenger disaster, space shuttle Discovery carried the now new and improved “Chix in Space” incubator aboard its middeck during mission STS-29.
Vellinger and Deuser would incorporate and see other examples of their custom space research facilities launched aboard five more shuttle missions, three suborbital rocket flights and several sorties of parabolic flight aircraft. Besides constructing the hardware, Techshot also has provided payload integration services for its space missions.
Today Techshot has 50 team members, most of whom are mechanical, electrical, chemical, or software engineers. Several others are technicians or scientists, representing a broad range of disciplines. Naturally, we apply a multidisciplinary approach to every project we undertake. It’s an approach that reflects the depth and range of our experience … and consistently yields more innovative and effective solutions.
After nearly three decades, the excitement of developing equipment for spaceflight remains as strong as ever. Our payloads are now launching to the International Space Station aboard commercial “new space” vehicles such as SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon. We’re thrilled to be a part of this new golden age of spaceflight.