SAN FRANCISCO — After decades of designing spacecraft and launch vehicles in two dimensions, Lockheed Martin Space Systems engineers are shifting that work into three dimensions with the help of a new virtual reality laboratory.

The Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL), which opened Dec. 14 in Denver, is designed to improve efficiency and enhance understanding at every stage of a project, said Jeff D. Smith, special projects director for Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

“We see the world in three dimensions, but the way we work on paper and computer monitors is in two dimensions,” Smith said. “The CHIL provides a rich environment to instill understanding so we can minimize the learning curve.”

CHIL at a Glance

Top Official: Jeff Smith, Special Projects Director

Established: December 2010

Location: Denver

Parent Organization: Lockheed Martin Space Systems

That understanding will benefit engineers who will be able to see whether components of a satellite will fit together correctly once it is built as well as production designers seeking to streamline spacecraft assembly, Smith said. “We want to make sure the mechanics can get their torque wrench into the right place,” he added.

To move that work into the virtual realm, Lockheed Martin built one of the largest motion-capture facilities in the United States, Smith said. The facility, which is housed in an old rocket assembly area, includes two large rooms where company employees can work independently or in teams to investigate their virtual creations before building the physical models.

Workers strap on head-mounted displays to step into the world where spacecraft, which reside only in computer-aided designs, appear in three dimensions. By mounting sensors on their bodies, workers can manipulate components of the virtual spacecraft and test modifications.

An entire suite of sensors is available to track a worker’s movement. “The type of activity you are doing would determine how many components you would put on,” Smith said. A person interacting with an electronic box, for example, might not need sensors on his legs and feet, but might wear cyber-gloves that offer enough dexterity to move individual circuit cards in the virtual black box, Smith said. In contrast, a mechanic working on a satellite’s structure probably would strap on sensors from head to toe, he said.

Lockheed Martin officials declined to discuss the cost of the facility, but said the CHIL is expected to save the company money over time by reducing the number of prototypes required and catching design errors before production begins. “It’s easier to move electrons than to move molecules,” Smith said.

The Lockheed Martin team assembling the CHIL worked quickly to construct the facility. Within one year of the project’s approval by senior company officials in late 2009, Lockheed Martin Space Systems engineers designed, built and integrated CHIL hardware and software components, Smith said.

Since it opened for business in December, the facility has been used by the Lockheed Martin team building the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation GPS 3 satellites. Next, the facility is scheduled to support Lockheed Martin’s effort to build NASA’s Orion crew capsule, a project that President Barack Obama initially proposed canceling along with the Moon-bound Constellation program and then resurrected as a crew lifeboat for the international space station.

Lockheed Martin uses a similar facility, the Human Immersive Laboratory in Fort Worth, Texas, to support the design, development and production of aeronautics program including the F-35 fighter jet. The aeronautics facility served as an inspiration for the CHIL, Smith said; however, the new virtual reality laboratory boasts more advanced, state-of-the-art technology.

Initially, the CHIL is being used by Lockheed Martin Space Systems assembly, test and launch operations group. In the years ahead, it is likely to be used by many different groups within the Space Systems division to support both classified and unclassified work. “It’s my perspective that it can support programs from womb to tomb,” Smith said. “We can use the CHIL throughout the entire product life cycle: during concept development, the design phase, production and operation sustainment.”

In addition to demonstrating how components can be assembled and built, the CHIL offers engineers a new way to visualize many of the analyses they conduct every day on computers. Engineers use software to analyze the amount of stress on various materials and structures. The CHIL could allow engineers to see those varying stress levels as they move around a structure in the virtual world. “By having it in an immersive world, I am able to see it in a totally different way than by looking at a monitor,” Smith said. “This immersive world gives you another dimension for use in all types of analysis.”

Lockheed Martin also will invite customers into the virtual reality laboratory. Two weeks ago, company officials brought one of their customers in to conduct a design review. Smith declined to specify the project under review, but said the review was a great success and the facility will be an important part of future reviews.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...