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UW Engineering Graduate Helps Launch Innovative Spacecraft

October 18, 2016
Ben Bryan (second from right) and his team in the OSIRIS-REx assembly and test room. (Photo - Bryan)
Ben Bryan (second from right) and his team in the OSIRIS-REx assembly and test room. (Photo courtesy Ben Bryan)

University of Wyoming alumnus Ben Bryan got a call that most people wouldn’t dream was possible.

After several years of working as a project manager, designer and engineer with several engineering firms, his phone rang. The person on the other end posed an interesting question.

“Lockheed Martin called me and asked if I wanted to build spaceships for a living,” Bryan says. “The rest is history, and I’m honored to be making history.”

Bryan graduated in 2003 from UW with a degree in structural engineering. In 2010, Lockheed Martin offered him a position, and now he serves as a systems integration engineer for the aerospace company.

He’s involved with an exciting project, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. It launched into space Sept. 8 and will travel to “Bennu,” a carbonaceous asteroid whose rocky material may record the earliest history of our solar system.

Lockheed Martin has hopes that Bennu may contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life and the Earth’s oceans. Bennu also is a potentially hazardous asteroid, as it has a relatively high probability of impacting the Earth late in the 22nd century. The OSIRIS-REx will determine Bennu’s physical and chemical properties, which will be critical to know in the event of an impact-mitigation mission. Asteroids also may contain natural resources such as water, organics and precious metals. In the future, these asteroids may one day fuel the exploration of the solar system by robotic and manned spacecraft.

Bryan’s role on OSIRIS-REx was the Assembly Test and Launch Operations (ATLO) lead. It was an important role, as he led two spacecraft teams to build and test the spacecraft from the beginning of the project. 

“In ATLO, I dressed up in a bunny suit (cleanroom suit) every day and put together an actual spaceship, which is not a bad way to earn a living,” he says. “I worked on it every day for two-and-a-half years in a Class-7 cleanroom, working directly on the spacecraft with my team. We tested it in every environment it would see on its mission and successfully launched it Sept. 8.”

Bryan believes this mission will open the door for many new discoveries and innovations, saying the benefits are “too numerous to mention.”

“We have invented new technologies for this mission that will affect future innovations and development,” he says. “We have discovered new ways to test and simulate the mission environment. The mission itself will go to a deep space asteroid and bring back a pristine sample of space dirt.

“Perhaps there is an element that has yet to be discovered. Perhaps they will find something of worth on that asteroid that will prompt future asteroid explorations. It is space exploration, and that is always beneficial to the human race.”

OSIRIS-REx’s Key Science Objectives

-- Return and analyze a sample of Bennu’s surface.

-- Map the asteroid.

-- Document the sample site.

-- Measure the orbit deviation caused by nongravitational forces (the Yarkovsky effect).

-- Compare observations at the asteroid to ground-based observations.

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