Inside the Lab where Spacecraft are Born

May 18, 2016 | Author: Ed Tribble

OSIRISIf these walls could talk, they would tell the story of the previous spacecraft born here: Viking, Magellan and Voyager, to name a few. Situated about 25 miles south of Denver, Lockheed Martin’s facility has rich history of building spacecraft for more than half a century. Recently NASA and Lockheed Martin invited me to get a preview of the latest spacecraft being added to the birth registry here: OSIRIS-REx.

OSIRIS-REx is set to launch later this fall. It will head to the Bennu Asteroid, collect a sample, then bring that sample back to earth. The engineers picked Bennu partly for engineering reasons, but also because of the size and speed of the asteroid. Plus we knew a lot about it already. And as far as asteroids go, it's sort of an easy trip.

Honeywell has two key products on board: Our miniature inertial measurement unit and our reaction wheels. These products have a long heritage in space. Our MIMU has racked up the frequent flier miles: 22 successful deep space missions to the sun, moon and have also been to Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Pluto.

Our reaction wheel assemblies are mostly used on satellites. They help steer the craft while in orbit, pointing it in the right direction and putting it in the right position.


The first thing that struck me was how small the spacecraft was versus the size of the huge lab. The size of a small car, the spacecraft was in the finishing stages of assembly before being shipped by military aircraft to Florida for launch. A robotic arm will scoop up about 4-5 pounds of debris from Bennu. The arm was designed by a Lockheed Martin engineer who built a prototype in his driveway scooping up ping pong balls. Over lunch, one of the engineers on the robotic arm team lamented mixed emotions that her work on this project wrapping up. She was incredibly proud to be part of the project, but also a little sad that her baby was about to leave the nest.

From my vantage point in the observation part of the lab, I couldn’t see our reaction wheels because they were on the other side of the spacecraft. However, I got a great view (and a great photo) of our 2 MIMUs that will help navigate the journey.

OSIRISWe rounded out the tour by seeing the room that is currently controlling five space missions. I envisioned walking into mission control. Instead it looked like a normal office. Our tour guide explained that they don’t have someone watching the data come in from the spacecraft 24/7. The ships are built to be fairly self-sufficient and know what to do if something deviates from the plan. Engineers will monitor the data and send up commands every few days, as needed.


OSIRIS-REx will launch in the fall and will return in 2023. By then, this lab will surely be building the next piece of space history.

Ed Tribble

Ed Tribble

Ed Tribble is a Marketing/Communications professional for Honeywell Aerospace. Before coming to Honeywell in 2013, he spent a decade working as a local television news reporter in several markets.

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