Inside the "space factory"

More than two decades after the facility’s creation, Raytheon continues to boost its mission to keep exoatmospheric capabilities ahead of threats

That’s the trajectory of Space Systems Operations – aka the “space factory” – since its 2002 opening outside Tucson, Arizona. 

Run by Raytheon, an RTX business, the space factory covers over 49,000 square feet. Inside are dozens of clean rooms housing space simulating technologies to support production and testing of complex space hardware.

Each clean room is designed specifically for manufacturing or testing interceptor technologies for successful deployment and performance beyond Earth’s atmosphere as a critical component of the United States’ missile defense capabilities.

“We’re capitalizing on the company’s decades of lessons learned and innovation,” said Dana Michaud, director for Space Systems Operations. “We’re constantly evaluating and improving the infrastructure and technology to continually advance our solutions in space.”

Michaud, who joined Raytheon from NASA’s space shuttle propulsion program, worked in making kill vehicles at the space factory for nine years before he became its director in 2017. Today, he also oversees the Raytheon Manufacturing Integration Facility in Huntsville, Alabama, where those capabilities are also tested.

An employee working on a machine

At the space factory, air is filtered out every 27 seconds to simulate Earth’s exoatmosphere where even a miniscule fleck of dust can damage instruments and systems.

Simulating space

Stainless steel is the metal of choice in the space factory for particle mitigation, while sensors throughout the building constantly measure air pressure, temperature, humidity and microscopic particles – all measures to simulate space for optimal product performance.

“The very sensitive optics of the interceptor must be built in a sterile chamber in the cleanest possible environment so that, when the kill vehicle enters the blackness of space, it can distinguish its target from all distractions,” Michaud said.

Meanwhile, the factory’s cleaning crews work around the clock, thoroughly scrubbing all surfaces and floors. And, depending on restrictions in the four classes of clean zones, the air is swapped out every 27 seconds – using both HEPA and ULPA filters. For example, a technician or engineer working an eight-hour day will get fresh air that’s exchanged over a thousand times during their shift.

“That’s significantly cleaner than most operating rooms or various levels of semi-conductor plants,” Michaud said, adding that the operator is fully covered head-to-toe “like an astronaut” during phases of the factory’s space simulating processes.

Employees in the clean room

Clean-room requirements also apply to the people who work in the space factory.

Then and now

The space factory’s roots took hold in the late 1990s, when the U.S. government tasked what is now Raytheon – the world's largest producer of guided missiles – with building a system to counter the rising threat of long-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The result of that rapid work – and the space factory’s first product – was the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle. The EKV has since become first line of defense for the U.S. Ground-Based Interceptor and part of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System. It destroys incoming missiles by slamming into them in space.

While the EKV was the Tucson facility’s initial project in 2002 and has since gone through multiple upgrades there, the factory is also working on the Standard Missile-3 family and development of a Next Generation Interceptor, or NGI, in partnership with Northrop Grumman, for a Missile Defense Agency competition. 


A technician tests exoatmospheric technology

At the space factory in Tucson, a technician tests exoatmospheric technology in an ultra-clean environment. 

NGI will track and destroy a new array of enemy missile threats. The system will accomplish this by using advanced technologies and algorithms to approach and discern the threat, release kill vehicles and command them to intercept before the threat re-enters the atmosphere.

The Northrop Grumman and Raytheon team bring over 60 years of flight-proven missile defense experience including ground systems, battle management, command and control, interceptor boost vehicle and kill vehicle and systems integration to the NGI program. Along with this market-leading expertise, the joint NGI team is using innovative technologies, agile processes and operating facilities, like the space factory, to deliver an NGI capability that ensures mission success.

One of a kind

So far, the space factory has contributed to more than 50 successful tests of Raytheon capabilities in space. The facility is widely recognized as unique and, in visits to the facility, Department of Defense personnel have identified it as a critical infrastructure and national asset for the protection of the U.S. and its allies.

Michaud attributes that status not only to the factory’s extremely clean environment but also to “its patented technologies and processes to support its manufacturing of sensitive optics, sensors and interceptors.”

Michaud also credits the deep well of expertise and experience among its technicians and engineers, especially in terms of space application hardware and interceptor technology. 

An employee works on a machine

Technicians and engineers support production and testing of complex space hardware at the space factory, where sensors constantly ensure its air pressure, temperature, humidity and microscopic particles continue to simulate space.

Investing in the future

As a  U.S. Air Force veteran, Michaud knows how crucial it is for the space factory to maintain its momentum, sustain its systems and advance its technologies to help defeat evolving adversarial threats outside Earth's atmosphere.

Since expanding the facility in 2015, Raytheon has invested $40 million in further modernizing manufacturing there. Among the updates:

- Increased use of robotics in manufacturing.

- Additional cryogenic chambers for space-simulated testing.

- More extremely clean micro-environment capabilities, which reduce air particles to less than 10 particles per cubic foot.

- A first-of-its-kind three-axis shock and vibration system, which creates space flight frequencies for testing without disrupting the product's configuration.

The exterior of the Space Systems Operations building

Space Systems Operations is more commonly known as the space factory and covers an area of more than 49,000 square feet on the outskirts of Tucson.  

As facilities across Raytheon are doing, the space factory is also stepping up digital technologies that enable faster and more efficient work in design and testing.

“As we're diving into the evolution of kill vehicles, we’re tying into the digital thread at the space factory – integrating ourselves early in the design phase, simulating designs and processes ahead of actual product design,” Michaud said.

This creates a “huge advantage” in affordability and production capacity, he added. Digital transformation is priming manufacturing processes for early success by identifying and resolving potential obstacles that could affect the various phases of delivering next-generation kill vehicles.

“In the past, people wouldn’t have dreamed of being able to align all these functions,” Michaud said. “These technologies really are driving transformation at the space factory, helping to protect the U.S. and its allies into the future.”

All views are those of Raytheon and do not imply endorsement by the Missile Defense Agency.