Astronautics Moves Corporate Headquarters to Oak Creek
When you think of the aerospace industry, places on the west coast such as Seattle or Palm Springs, or even the high-tech corridor of Florida, come to mind. The Milwaukee area likely would not. However, Astronautics Corporation of America has quietly become a global leader in the aerospace industry over the past 60 years, right in our back yard. This year, we can proudly claim them as our own, as they relocated their corporate headquarters to Oak Creek, at 135 W. Forest Hill Avenue.
Astronautics is a mid-sized, high-technology company that designs and manufactures state-of-the-art avionics and connectivity solutions for the aerospace and defense industry. Their equipment flies onboard more than 150,000 aircraft, including airplanes, helicopters, transports, fighters and trainers operated worldwide.
Like the field of aviation, the company has evolved over time. Astronautics was founded in 1959 by brother and sister team Nate Zelazo and Norma Paige. After developing radar systems for the Navy during World War II, Zelazo led research and development for the avionics division of Oster Manufacturing in Racine. When Oster relocated its division to Florida, Zelazo and Paige decided it was time to launch their own business, intending to set up shop on the east coast, where they had grown up and where Paige was a lawyer. However, Zelazo’s UW-Madison professors urged him to stay in Wisconsin, to drive more innovation and technology to the Midwest.
The company’s first contract, a calculation of fuel usage for an Air Force study on manned space flight, set the business in motion, and they opened the company’s first location in Milwaukee. Astronautics went on to complete other projects that aided the United States mission of space exploration: a data-recording device for NASA’s TIROS weather satellite, and cameras for the X-15 rocket-powered research aircraft, which enabled NASA to photograph stars from the outside of the atmosphere for the first time.
While the company’s early focus was space, Astronautics quickly became known for creating extremely reliable electromechanical primary flight and engine displays, many of which are still flying today. In the early 2000s they became a crucial player in the commercial aviation industry with the creation of a revolutionary new product, the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB). This device was designed to take the place of the black bags that pilots would take with them on every flight, containing charts, airport information, airplane data and other navigation tools. Boeing made this technology standard on most of its 777 airliners, and all of its 787 Dreamliners, providing a secure and durable method of digital information delivery and management to the cockpit. With the advent of mobile technology such as smartphones and tablets, Astronautics continues to work with Boeing to find solutions to provide secure solutions to meet today’s needs in a rapidly changing environment.
Displays and cockpit integration have always been a focal point of the company. While Astronautics creates high-tech all-glass displays for new aircraft or older models in need of a cockpit refresh, they still support their earlier electromechanical equipment in use for many years. The company is known for its ability to integrate its products with other companies’ products, and this flexibility allows its customers to upgrade their aircraft incrementally. In recent years, Astronautics has expanded its product offerings to connected aircraft solutions, systems to enable secure air-to-ground data communication necessary for operations and maintenance of the aircraft. The dual product line encompassing both equipment and secure communication solutions serves many customers, large and small. The Astronautics air-to-ground communications system is standard on all Airbus medium turbine helicopters, and its Badger Pro+ Cockpit Display System is standard on all production Bell 412EPX and 429 helicopters. Having a forward-fit position at Boeing, Airbus and Bell is something the company is quite proud of, supporting the “who’s who” of aerospace original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).
When Astronautics decided to move its headquarters from its Teutonia Avenue location where it had been since the early 1980s, to a much larger facility in Oak Creek, it was with the mission of consolidating its operations into one building. Currently, manufacturing facility and engineering mechanical prototype shops are still located in Milwaukee. They are eager to move everyone into their newly refreshed and remodeled headquarters in the next 18 to 24 months.
“There’s so much to gain in having everyone in the same place,” notes Mary Loomis, director of communications, “We’re confident that getting engineering in the same space as manufacturing will create even greater synergies and innovations.”
All Astronautics employees and their families got a peek at the new location and community in March of 2019 before the company began an extensive interior makeover of the 148,000-sq.-ft. facility. Even with a significant change on the horizon, the staff was excited by the possibilities. With the first phase of the remodel complete, employees began to move into the building late last year. They are pleased with the amenities that Oak Creek has to offer and their fresh new space, full of airy collaborative spaces for impromptu meetings and gatherings.
One of the first items of business Astronautics took in its new headquarters, was to hold a naming contest for their conference rooms and lunchrooms. It should come as no surprise that the employees came up with an aviation theme for these spaces! First floor rooms are all named for airports in cities where Astronautics has a presence. The lobby conference room is the Mitchell. They’ve also got Sky Harbor, to represent the engineering office they have in Phoenix, and Liberty, named after the Newark airport where company subsidiary, Kearfott Corporation, is located nearby.
Second-floor spaces were all named after iconic aircraft, real and fictional – Black Hawk, Millennium Falcon, Enterprise and Serenity. The Hangar is their first-floor working cafeteria, while the second-floor lunchroom is called, of course, The Tower.
Once all Milwaukee-area offices have been consolidated during the second phase of the building remodel, approximately 400 employees will work in Astronautics Headquarters. However, they will still have room to grow. Loomis states, “We are always looking for the right talent.” Astronautics works extensively with area universities for interns for their high-tech industry. However, their greatest need is currently in the manufacturing area, and they hope to cultivate a local interest in this very specialized skill-set.
Modern Artwork with Nod to the Past Greets Visitors in Astronautics’ Lobby
Visitors to Astronautics’ headquarters in Oak Creek are greeted by the fascinating sculpture seen to the left. Helene Zelazo, wife of Astronautics’ co-founder, had the artwork commissioned many years ago as a gift to Nate. Originally, it was connected sailboat masts, as he loved sailing and taking clients out on his sailboat to see the City from Lake Michigan. The piece was originally featured in the company’s Madison Technology Center. When that building was sold, the sculpture was taken apart and went into storage.
Fast forward a few decades and the sculpture was rediscovered when the company moved from its Teutonia Ave. location. Astronautics’ model shop employees cleaned, re-soldered and painted the metal and, as you can see, now it is more of a modern, free-form piece giving a nod to the past. Between the metal are pieces of stained glass with symbols significant to Astronautics, including the company logo.
Chad Cundiff, president of Astronautics, is known to say that “it’s easier to grow talent than it is to steal talent.” This philosophy goes full circle to the reason why Nate Zelazo and Norma Paige started their company here instead of elsewhere – building and keeping talent right here in our community. Loomis sums it up nicely: “You can have a fascinating high-tech career in aerospace and not leave southeastern Wisconsin.”
For more information about career opportunities with Astronautics, please visit astronautics.com/careers.
Astronautics Corporate of America
135 W. Forest Hill Ave. • (414) 449-4000 • astronautics.com