TEA -- Oversized moist towelettes that have been helping overseas soldiers freshen up in battlefields devoid of showers are about to embark on a more celestial mission.
A shipment of specially compressed and dehydrated Klenz towels is scheduled to hitch a ride aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on Monday for use by U.S. astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
NASA found the South Dakota company while searching the Internet for U.S. hygiene towels similar to what the Russians were sending up to their cosmonauts, said Jessica Fichuk, a NASA project manager.
Astronauts can rip open the foil packages, pour four ounces of water onto the 2-foot-by-3-foot cloths and be ready to clean up within seconds.
"Just like when you are camping, these are what you use when you don't have access to a shower," Fichuk said.
The idea for the "Klenz XXL Shower in a Towel" came to Hartford, S.D.-native Troy Edberg in 1993 while he was a U.S. Marine on patrol in Somalia, where soldiers were struggling to find any available baby wipes to keep clean.
"We'd be out for 10 days without a shower," Edberg said. "We'd have like a wet wipe or something, a little one."
Edberg figured it'd make more sense to have one big towel instead of having to burn through 80 smaller ones, but he didn't pursue the idea until 2004 when he pitched it to Vince McCormick, owner of the Hartford, S.D., health and fitness center where he worked out.
McCormick loved the idea, but it took nearly four years to bring the product to the market.
Soldiers told McCormick they wanted something big enough to clean their backs and whole bodies, and they didn't want to be left smelling like a baby or feeling sticky or dry.
"We've got guys out in the desert and stuff," McCormick said. "The last thing we need to do is put alcohol in it and dry them out."
McCormick found an environmentally friendly, biodegradable material made of grass and wood called HydroKnit, and he settled on a fragrance-free, residue-free cleaning solution with a common anti-bacterial agent and aloe.
Finding a company to make the towels proved to be a greater challenge.
"We had to basically take a tablecloth manufacturer and a wet wipe manufacturer and kind of combine them," McCormick said.
Edberg and McCormick then brought in another partner, Dollar Loan Center owner Keith Bergh, and the team spent a year-and-a-half test marketing the 2-foot-by-4-foot wet towels, sending them to 30 different countries and handing them out to riders at the Sturgis motorcycle rally.
"We sent it to Afghanistan," McCormick said. "We sent it to Iraq, South America, Alaska."
McCormick then began the paperwork to get a contract with the U.S. General Services Administration, which arranges sales from the private sector to government organizations and the military. He also decided to get them in the field sooner by donating $50,000 worth of Klenz Towels to Operation USO Care Package.
The gamble paid off, as less than a half year later Klenz became partners with the USO and now serves as its hygiene product provider. Some 500,000 of the towels have since found their way into soldiers' hands.
Klenz's retail version of its towels, for use in camping, fishing, hunting, hiking and biking, sell for $3.78 each on the company's Web site, or about $104 for a case of 48. People can also send a 12-pack to an overseas soldier for $30.
Klenz did $38,000 in sales in 2008 and $300,000 in 2009. McCormick said he is hoping to reach $1.2 million this year as it increases its retail sales and works to break into the professional, college and high school sports markets.
McCormick said his ultimate goal is to produce the towels in a local manufacturing plant that hires disabled veterans.