What do NASA engineers and bikers have in common?

The same space-age technology that protects U.S. rocket payloads (other than the Space Shuttle) as they’re launched into orbit has recently been employed – in miniature – to create a strong yet lightweight motorcycle trailer, thanks to a NASA-funded technology outreach program.

Motorcycle clubs and dealers repeatedly approached Indiana-based C&P Corp. about developing a customized trailer. Last February, the company responded.

“We asked for their wish list,” said Dr. Bill Selkirk, vice president of the 35-year-old Patterson Industries research arm. “They wanted the bottom to drop out so they could ride the vehicle straight on rather than on an incline, a product that was durable for up to 25 years and wouldn’t bend when hit.”

C&P’s design team also wanted the trailer to be safe at highway speeds. While reading his weekly Kiplinger Report, Selkirk learned about the Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program (SATOP), which provides free engineering assistance to small businesses with technical challenges through donations of time and expertise from 49 Space Alliance Partners throughout the country. He then researched the SATOP website before formally applying for program assistance.

Alliance Partner Engineer Harry Erwin, a 40-year Johnson Space Center veteran now on loan to the Bay Area Houston SATOP office, jumped at the chance to render a solution. Erwin went online and looked at structural solutions NASA had used in the past and some commercial applications such as convertible car tops.

“The concept intrigued me,” said Erwin. “He was looking for a way to trailer cycles that presented the same problem as on the front end of delicate rocket payloads. A satellite rides on the very top of the rocket and has to be protected from all the wind on the way up by a fiberglass shroud. The shroud has to be strong yet light, adding a minimal amount of weight to the payload. We protect satellites going about 5,000 mph this way. We’ve owned this technology for the past 15 years. It took only a couple of hours to research our past experience and apply it to his needs.”

Selkirk said, “He gave me awesome turnaround time with a real sense of urgency. What made SATOP’s contribution significant was that they took our feedback and helped us design a product that would pass safety inspections and be road-worthy. (The trailer has received Indiana and federal Department of Transportation approvals.) It was a very big help in designing an enclosed version whose top could be lifted off by just one person.”

The company uses 16-gauge hardened steel with a six-mill-thick plastic powder coat to construct the vehicles. The plastic is so finely ground that it coats the trailer’s metal more durably than standard wet paint, said Selkirk. The vehicles are then baked at 500 degrees Fahrenheit on the assembly line with a million-volt charge to the metal.

First manufactured May 1, the patented open-top trailer is 14 ˝ feet long x 8 feet wide (the enclosed version debuts at Daytona Beach to launch the 2006 riding season). The company’s “trailer team” produces 20 units daily, said Selkirk. Costing up to $4,100 each, Selkirk said 2,000 units have already sold, and there’s a four-week order backlog. “We’ve added nine more employees because of this new product line and we anticipate first-year revenues of $600-700,000,” he said.

The trailer, especially popular with RV owners, accommodates all motorcycle and tricycle sizes. Lawn care companies and professional barbecuers have also purchased the ergonomically-designed trailer.

“I talk about SATOP all the time,” said Selkirk. “I was so impressed with their response that I’ve asked them to work on two more projects for us.”