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UW Engineering Graduate Helps Launch Innovative Spacecraft

October 20, 2016
people in white suits work on a spacecraft
UW graduate Ben Bryan, third from right in dark hood, works on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. (Ben Bryan Photo)

A University of Wyoming alumnus played an integral role in launching a spacecraft to explore an asteroid in our solar system.

Ben Bryan worked for several years as a project manager, designer and engineer with various engineering firms. One day, his phone rang and 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.”

Originally from Alaska, Bryan graduated in 2003 from UW with a degree in structural engineering. In 2010, Lockheed Martin offered him a position, and he now 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. 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.”

row of seated people in white containment suits

Originally from Alaska, UW graduate Ben Bryan, second from right, is among engineers who designed a spacecraft that is traveling to “Bennu,” a carbonaceous asteroid whose rocky material may record the earliest history of the solar system. (Ben Bryan Photo)

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 are:

-- 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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