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Enabling Orion

Darryl Howard grounds himself to his workstation to prevent a spark. Specially designed sticky floor mats and electrostatic smocks serve as additional safeguards, and for good reason: An unexpected zap could fry sensitive circuits that will go to the moon. The lives of four astronauts depend on more than just clean equipment.

As a quality engineering manager at Honeywell Aerospace in Clearwater, Howard oversees instruments designed and built for the Orion spacecraft, which will carry the crew on a lunar flyby as part of NASA’s Artemis II mission in late 2024.

“So you don’t want to take any chances by damaging things with an electrostatic discharge,’’ he says of the precautions everyone follows inside Honeywell’s labs.

Artemis I blasted off from Kennedy Space Center last November as an unmanned mission to test software and hardware in the harsh environment of space. NASA declared the 25-day trek a success that proved the configuration is people-ready. The focus is now on the four spacefarers, and their poster-size photos around the Honeywell campus serve as a visual cue for workers to stay sharp.

“We look at that picture every day, and it makes an impression,’’ says Shauna McCallister, Orion manufacturing engineering lead who has been with Honeywell for more than two decades. “It’s a reminder that everything we do here will affect the safety of the crew.’’

To a motorist buzzing along U.S. 19 in the heart of Pinellas County, the 800,000 sq.-ft. facility is unassuming, a cluster of aging warehouses that might otherwise store auto parts or lumber.

But inside these eight buildings is a high-tech world teeming with people in blue or red smocks, some peering into microscopes, others hovering over motherboards jammed with multicolored wires and tiny transistors. To keep things as clean as possible, pressurized rooms prevent contaminants from entering.

Although 150 miles from Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s east coast, the Honeywell plant and its 2,079 employees played a crucial role in the first Artemis mission and will continue as NASA sets up shop on the moon — and eventually sends people to Mars.

Honeywell is hardly new to this kind of work. The North Carolina-based Fortune 500 company patented the first furnace regulator in 1885 before evolving into building technologies and aerospace and is now an avionics juggernaut with nearly 100,000 employees worldwide, and an annual revenue of more than $35 billion.

Its name is synonymous with the development of jet fighters, bombers, submarines and missile systems; the ubiquitous round thermostat found in most American midcentury homes; the Space Shuttle and International Space Station; and NASA’s interplanetary missions to Mars, Saturn and Pluto. The company also manages facilities that are part of the U.S. nuclear security complex.

Now, Honeywell is returning to Earth’s closest neighbor, where people last set foot in 1972. While Apollo 17 — the final lunar mission — got there and back using primitive computers and a modified intercontinental ballistic missile called the Saturn V, a half century of new tools and techniques makes these seem crude by comparison, says Jeffrey Guynn, lead manufacturing engineer for Orion’s cockpit display units.

“The technology we’re working with is night and day from the Apollo program,’’ he says. “Some of the things we’re working on are really mind blowing. I’m geeked about it. It’s more than going to a job every day.’’

Guynn’s job is one of about 70,000 within the Artemis program matrix, which so far has translated to a $14-billion impact spread over all 50 states, according to a 2022 Office of Technology, Policy & Strategy report. In Florida alone, about 90 private-sector partners and 250 partnership agreements inject nearly $5.3 billion into the state each year, says a Kennedy Space Center Economic Impact Study.

All of this could end in a wink with a federal budget cut, which has felled many NASA projects over the years. But keeping momentum for the long haul is an alliance of 26 nations that have vowed to support Artemis, along with a bipartisan Congressional bill — the NASA Authorization Act of 2022 — intended to protect funding for the agency’s Moon to Mars initiative.

Certainly, the price tag for the Artemis I mission was high, coming in at $4.1 billion. At the completion of Artemis II, NASA will have invested $93 billion in the program, says a 2021 NASA Office Inspector General (OIG) audit.

But from the beginning, engineers were thinking big. The Orion crew module has been under development since 2006 and will have cost an estimated $19 billion by the time Artemis II launches, according to the OIG. It will sit atop NASA’s most powerful-ever rocket: the 32-story, 5.8-million-pound Space Launch System (SLS), which stands taller than the Statue of Liberty.

The rocket is essentially a giant gas tank, and along with its twin solid rocket boosters and four RS-25 engines produces a controlled explosion of nearly 9 million pounds of thrust to escape Earth’s gravity and send Orion deep into space. Although mechanical snags, including hydrogen leaks, twice delayed its maiden voyage last year, the overall performance proved its dependability going forward, NASA administrator Bill Nelson has said.

“There’s going to be a vigorous future for the SLS,’’ he said at a press conference after the launch of Artemis I in November.

Working with NASA’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell as a sub-contractor is responsible for many of Orion’s guidance and navigation systems, data handling, cockpit displays and controls, and core flight software. Most of these devices had never been tested in space until last year, and others will make their debut on Artemis II, so engineers have zero tolerance for failure in the lab.

“We have to make sure that our components are robust because we can’t get them back to fix them once they’re out in space,’’ adds McCallister. “The day-to-day challenge is having that in mind. There is no room for bad days at work around here, because once these things go out, that’s it.’’

NASA leadership calls the efforts at the Clearwater facility a symbol of American ingenuity, an intersection of science and engineering helping to fuel the country’s second golden age of space exploration. The job requires diligence by the day, month, year, and decade, says Janet Karika, the principal advisor for space transportation within NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate.

“This is just the beginning, and keeping every-one focused is vital,’’ she told a gathering of employees at the Pinellas plant. “We need to keep our cadence. You knocked it out of the park with Artemis I, but don’t get comfy.’’

That means every circuit board, illuminated dial, electric connection, altimeter, and flight data gauge must be meticulously tested, stressed, re-tested and inspected. What worked for Artemis I must work again — without fail — for the upcoming mission and its astronauts.

McCallister still finds it hard to believe that a piece of hardware sitting on a lab bench in Clearwater will be traveling on the most distant manned mission ever attempted.

“It’s amazing to know that my fingerprints are all over this, that what we’ve built for Orion will be out in space and back,’’ she says. “But we can’t lose ourselves in the day-to-day mire of our work. We have to stop and realize what we’re doing, because the impact is huge.’’

ARTEMIS I: The uncrewed mission to orbit the moon launched on Nov. 16, 2022 and ended with a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean 25 days later. The Orion spacecraft traveled 1.4 million miles on the mission.

ARTEMIS II: Four astronauts will travel around the moon, but not land, in what is planned to be the first crewed mission of the Artemis program. The mission is expected to last about 10 days and is planned for November 2024.

ARTEMIS III: Currently planned for 2025, the mission will mark humanity’s return to the lunar surface after more than 50 years with a targeted landing near the lunar South Pole. SpaceX is developing a human landing system for the mission that will transport astronauts from Orion to the surface of the moon and back.

Cold War Roots

The Honeywell plant in Clearwater opened in 1956 as part of the Department of Defense’s decision to augment the military-industrial complex over all 50 states and limit the potential devastation of a concentrated nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. This also necessitated spreading out locations of contractors and subcontractors. The Honeywell executive in charge at the time was familiar with Pinellas County and worked closely with local officials to acquire land for what would be the company’s Space and Strategic Systems Operation. Years later, the name was changed to the Clearwater Defense and Space Facility, but it’s now a Honeywell Aerospace site.