Work ramps up at Gilbert space portal - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Voices

Work ramps up at Gilbert space portal

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Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at

Posted: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 9:01 am | Updated: 10:13 am, Mon Apr 9, 2012.

Sit in the front row at a rock concert and 110 decibels of music will rock your eardrums.

Stand behind a military jet at take-off and 140 decibels will blast you.

Walk into the 1200-square-foot Dynamics/Structural Test Lab in an ultimate big box building at the corner of McQueen and Elliott roads and find out what 153 decibels do to you.

Well, you can’t really.

When the test lab is in operation, it’s closed off by a 225,000-pound door and flooded with nitrogen.

The lab is in one of the East Valley’s gee-whiz places and is about to become “part of the most significant commercial space project in the world.”

The lab with a 57-foot high hoist hook is in Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Satellite Manufacturing Facility in Gilbert.

Orbital also has a larger operation in Chandler where it designs, tests and manufactures space launch vehicles, including the Pegasus and the Minotaur rockets.

The Dulles, Va.-based company celebrated its 30th birthday on Monday. With one-half of Orbital’s employment base in Arizona, we Arizonans would be wise to wish them Happy Birthday — and many more.

Last week’s tour of the satellite manufacturing and testing facility was not my first. Around eight years ago, before the building was up and running, a retired Air Force officer by the name of Dave Thompson gave me a tour.

Thompson had founded a company called Spectrum Astro and with it started a satellite manufacturing business in California.

California’s high cost of doing business led Thompson to relocate the plant in Gilbert, where, he told me, his engineers could buy more home for the money and send their kids to good schools.

At the same time, Thompson’s business had all the benefits of lower taxes and being close to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, where he could find direct flights to wherever he needed to go at competitive airfares.

In the first tour, I wore a hard hat, not a clean-room suit and paper bonnet; and I was able to walk through the rooms, not peer into them from secure doorways.

But only a part of the building was being readied for use. Thompson had overbuilt for the future, and wisely so because the future is getting here fast.

Over time Thompson figured out that the future also needed a big military and defense player; so he sold the business to General Dynamics. Two years ago on April 2, General Dynamics resold it to Orbital.

Today the entire building is in use. By next summer office personnel will move into a three-story office building that will go up to the east side of the plant.

The main building where two or three satellites at a time can now be built will be reconfigured into one capable of assembling and testing 10-16 satellites at a time and in time for the massive 81-satellite Iridium NEXT contract.

My second tour was courtesy of the East Valley Aviation & Aerospace Alliance Academy in which I had enrolled last fall to learn more about our region’s aviation and aerospace industry.

Orbital vice president and Gilbert site manager Chris Long extended the tour invitation while speaking to our class in January.

Two-thirds of all NASA satellites in the last six years have been built in Gilbert, Long told us.

And he said all of the data available from Google Earth came from satellites built in Gilbert.

(As I was writing this column, I Googled “1721 West Elliot Road” and got a satellite view of the satellite manufacturing facility that had enabled the world to look down on my back yard.)

Our tour last week was led by Glen Gassaway, test operations manager in Gilbert. Gassaway is an energetic man who clearly enjoys his work and is able to explain it in ways that even I can understand.

Are you old enough to remember when turning on a hair blow-dryer sent lines across your TV set?

That’s what they call electromagnetic interference.

There are a lot of electronic gizmos on a satellite and the Gilbert plant tests the satellite payloads to make sure that they don’t interfere with each other as well as get confused by pulses in space.

Satellites are blasted by sound to make sure they can withstand the noise generated in a rocket launch. They’re also hoisted onto a giant paint mixer and given a good shaking to see if they can withstand the vibrations of a rocket launch without getting a permanent migraine.

They undergo thermal vacuum testing to make sure they can withstand the intense heat and cold of space.

We saw one satellite that is being readied for launch next year. The Landsat Data satellite will be operated by NASA and U.S. Geological Survey to record more images of mother earth’s surface and my backyard.

According to a fact sheet I picked up at the plant, Orbital’s list price for the launch vehicle, spacecraft control ground systems and what they call the satellite bus that houses and ferries around a medium-size payload ranges from $110-$240 million.

In September Orbital announced that NASA had awarded it a contract for $135 million to build and test at the Gilbert plant the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 scheduled for launch in 2016.

NASA says the satellite is “the benchmark Earth Observing System mission for measuring ice sheet mass balance, cloud and aerosol heights, as well as land topography and vegetation characteristics.”

I suspect that Gassaway’s days of being tapped for tour guide duty are about to end as business picks up with the plant’s ambitious Iridium NEXT project.

Iridium Communications Inc. is moving to upgrade its constellation of satellites that allow for communications from anywhere to anywhere on earth.

Orbital will assemble and test 81 satellites in Gilbert and ready them for a series of launches scheduled to begin in 2015 and conclude in 2017. (

Jason Yocum, who had been Orbital’s Gilbert site manager, is now the senior program director for the Iridium project. He said in a company newsletter that one of his jobs is “to develop a high-rate production capability” at the Gilbert facility.

“This is extremely exciting as it brings possibilities that can span many years in the future,” he said.

It’s not clear how much the contract is worth financially to Orbital Sciences and its 300-plus Gilbert workforce. (According to Wikipedia, the deal is worth $2.8 billion to France-headquartered prime contractor Thales Alenia Space which selected Orbital as sub-contractor.)

Regardless, it seems to me it’s quite a gee-whiz resume builder for the town of Gilbert and the East Valley aerospace community.

Orbital’s satellite work in Gilbert has so far been driven by government projects, and Iridium NEXT is a commercial project.

In a 2011 press release, Iridium CEO Matt Desch said this about Orbital: “With this contract, Orbital becomes part of the most significant commercial space project in the world.”

As does Gilbert and the East Valley.

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