At the General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems facility in Bothell, engineers built the “mortar” that fired the parachute for the Nov. 26 Mars landing.

Share story

Redmond-based rocket maker Aerojet-Rocketdyne wasn’t the only local firm anxiously watching the NASA Mars landing on Monday.

In nearby Bothell, a team at the General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems operation sat in front of a live video feed from NASA’s Mission Control, waiting for news about their own piece of the mission — a small but powerful cannon designed to blast out the parachute that helped slow the InSight landing craft as it plunged through the Martian atmosphere.

The so-called Mortar Deployment System is a wastebasket-sized cylindrical device, roughly 18 inches long and 10 inches across, that uses a precisely calibrated explosion to rapidly inflate a huge parachute behind the lander. That high-caliber shove is needed because the Martian atmosphere, at only one-hundredth the density of Earth’s, is so thin that the parachute won’t unfold on its own, said Paul Lichon, director of General Dynamic’s Bothell operation.

And unless the chute deploys fully and precisely on time, Lichon said, the lander’s braking rockets — supplied by Aerojet-Rocketdyne — wouldn’t slow the lander sufficiently to avoid a crash landing.

“This is one of the few systems on the spacecraft that is ‘single-point failure,’” said Lichon. “If our system doesn’t work, the whole mission is lost.”

Monday’s Mars landing wasn’t the first for the General Dynamics team in Bothell. Lichon and others there have worked on eight Mars missions, starting with Pathfinder in 1996, and have turned explosive deployment into a fine art.

The roughly 30 engineers and others on the mortar team handle every phase of development, from design and manufacturing to rigorous testing of what is, essentially, a parachute in a can. At one end of the can is a gas generator that uses two initiators which, at a command from onboard computers, ignite a proprietary explosive propellant to blast the chute out of the back of the falling lander.

Lichon says the mortars are tested hundreds of times, both at the Bothell facility and at Moses Lake, where technicians have enough space to deploy the entire parachute.

Still, even with the rigorous testing, Lichon’s team, like their crosstown counterparts at Aerojet-Rocketdyne, were on pins and needles during the now-famous “seven minutes of terror” phase that preceded the touchdown on the Martian surface Monday.

Indeed, the main difference, Lichon said, was that his team’s moment of truth came about halfway through the seven-minute descent, when they got “confirmation that the parachute was deployed.”

The two companies share more than a role on the InSight Lander Mission: both can trace their corporate lineage back to a Boeing aerospace spinoff called the Rocket Research Company. Founded in the 1960s, Rocket went through a series of name changes and restructurings until 2001, when it was purchased by Falls Church, VA-based  General Dynamics and split into two entities. The company’s engine facility was sold to Sacramento-based Aerojet-Rocketdyne while the remaining operations were moved to Bothell and became part of General Dynamics’s Ordnance and Tactical Systems.