Space Operators visit Lockheed Martin to see GPS III satellite production

  • Published
  • By Marcus Hill
  • Peterson-Schriever Garrison Public Affairs

The 2nd Space Operations Squadron had more than 10 Airmen visit Lockheed Martin facilities Aug. 6, to view the GPS III satellite manufacturing process and get a behind-the-scenes look at the next-generation systems.

The tour provided Airmen with details of how the GPS III operates, the launch process, and the different procedures satellites endure to ensure they are ready to launch. In the company’s GPS III Processing Facility, the Airmen saw the fifth GPS III satellite completed and waiting to be called up, and five more GPS III satellites in production and testing.

“A tour like this allows us to help educate our operator partners, allowing them to see and better understand the Space Vehicle Production side of the mission partnership,” said Tonya Ladwig, Lockheed Martin acting vice president for navigation systems. “Greater common understanding is essential for working together when you understand that GPS III is a warfighting system.”   

Capt. Brett Dunn, 2nd SOPS GPS Modernization flight commander, said the tour provided greater detail regarding creation of satellites and the overall process.

It was awesome being able to come here to see production and see in-person what we’re flying,” said Dunn. “Standing up there in the observation area and seeing those four or five satellites being built, the size of them and seeing the parts, puts things in perspective. It was really cool.”

Before it’s set to launch, satellites undergo environmental testing, including entering an acoustics chamber at the facility, which uses a high-powered air horn to create vibration. The vibration simulates a satellite on the end of a rocket preparing to enter orbit.

The GPS III satellites also endure thermal vacuum testing, which Chip Eschenfelder, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, said resembles a “big oven” where satellites are placed and the air is pumped out, creating a vacuum similar to the environment in space.

While in the chamber, satellites also endure extreme temperature changes from hot to cold to emulate the climate during orbit.

“We understood [satellites] go through extensive testing because of the climate in space,” Dunn said. “It can be [150] degrees one second and then immediately flip to negative [150] degrees. We knew that kind of testing went on, but it’s interesting to get the details behind it.”

For Shawn Boggs, 2nd SOPS network scheduler, an additional benefit included meeting the people who he regularly communicates with at Lockheed Martin.

“It’s useful to have the context of who you’re talking to when attempting to schedule,” Boggs said. “[We recently] spoke about [compatibility] tests [Lockheed Martin is] doing, and they have to submit paperwork through us to set up the timing for that test on our system. We’ve had to coordinate to adjust and make sure the system is set up properly.” 

Airmen also learned about the care technicians put into building satellites, including the coremate process where the satellite’s major components first come together to form a space vehicle. Core mate occurs when the satellite’s internal propulsion core is combined with the system module assembly that holds all the satellite’s operations and mission payload electronics.

During the core mate process, technicians use a 10-ton crane to rotate and slowly lower the system module assembly on to the vertical propulsion core.

During the core mate process, a team of technicians watch to ensure the two pieces come together without any of the components or wiring becoming pinched.

“We’ve always heard about their attention to detail,” said James McLarty, 2nd SOPS network administration operator. “When someone says, ‘stop,’ they all say ‘stop’ and they look for one piece of equipment or tool or screw or bolt. Hearing that helps to understand why [technicians] need to be as clean and thorough as they are with the satellites.”

Airmen said the tour provided a better understanding of the satellites they operate and gave an appreciation for the work the technicians do.  

“It was a really cool opportunity to see where they’re building the satellites,” Boggs said.It’s one thing to see a picture, but it’s another thing to stand there in a window and see the scale of the actual satellite in front of you.”