Brent BarbeeBrent Barbee at his console at Cape Canaveral a couple of hours before OSIRIS-REx was launched.

This year on Sept. 8, OSIRIS-REx lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a ULA Atlas V rocket to begin its seven-year mission to retrieve samples from the asteroid Bennu, which will be brought back to Earth for investigation.

Alumnus Brent Barbee, BS ASE '03, MS ASE '05, works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and is a member of the flight dynamics team for OSIRIS-REx. He was kind enough to take some time out of his busy day to answer our questions about his experience working on the mission.

Why is the OSIRIS-REx mission so important for space exploration?

OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security - Regolith Explorer, is NASA's 3rd New Frontiers class mission and is a very important space mission for our nation and the world. It is the United States' first asteroid sample return mission, and will return the largest sample of any space mission since Apollo returned lunar samples.

Those samples, from the near-Earth asteroid known as Bennu, will:

  • help us better understand the origins of our solar system and life on Earth.
  • help us better interpret the spectral signatures we see in observations of asteroids from both Earth telescopes and close proximity spacecraft.
  • help us better understand the resources asteroids might offer future explorers (such as raw materials from which to make propellant).
  • help us better understand the overall nature of asteroids, enabling us to deal with any that we might find on a collision course with Earth, thereby improving our security.
  • provide us with an unprecedented opportunity to explore a pristine sample of primitive asteroid regolith (surface material) in laboratories here on Earth.

What role have you played during the preparation and launch?

I am a member of the OSIRIS-REx Flight Dynamics team. I've worked on several aspects of the mission, but my primary responsibility was leading work on the development of algorithms and software to optimize the spacecraft's trajectory from Earth to Bennu (the asteroid). We then automated that software so that we could produce optimized Earth-to-Bennu trajectories at several minute intervals throughout each of 39 two-hour daily launch windows. That, in turn, allowed us to tell the launch vehicle provider what specific outbound flight path the launch vehicle (Atlas V 411) needed to achieve for the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, for every possible launch opportunity on every potential day of launch.

How did you feel before and after the launch?

Before the launch I felt very anxious, because a launch vehicle failure can end the mission before it even has the chance to begin. After the launch vehicle had reached space successfully, I felt relieved. I felt especially relieved when we received telemetry a couple of hours after launch indicating that the launch vehicle's upper stage had succeeded in putting us on the outbound flight path we specified.

Will you be involved with future aspects of OSIRIS-REx? If so, what will your role be? 

I'm not sure to what extent I will continue to be involved with OSIRIS-REx, as I am continuing to work on quite a few other projects at NASA/GSFC.

How did your educational experience as a UT student help prepare you for this mission?

My educational experience as a UT student was extremely helpful in preparing me for this mission. UT's Aerospace Engineering department had, and continues to have, a strong space flight dynamics curriculum, and my role on OSIRIS-REx was very much about applying the principles and theory of space flight dynamics to figure out the best way to get the spacecraft to the asteroid. On top of that, I studied asteroid mission design specifically in Dr. Fowler's undergraduate and graduate mission design classes, as well as for my Master's Thesis work under his supervision. So, my time at UT prepared me well to support OSIRIS-REx!