Wayne Schutsky/Tribune Staff

Advanced aerospace manufacturer and longtime Gilbert employer Orbital ATK officially pulled back the curtain on its new satellite engineering building on June 28.

The 60,000-square-foot facility is located on the site of Orbital’s existing satellite manufacturing plant and will provide a basis for the company’s employment growth plans moving forward.

The expansion is part of a five-year plan that will see Orbital ATK hire 155 additional workers, mostly engineering scientists, through 2020, said Rick Kettner, Orbital ATK Gilbert site manager.

The company will primarily be adding high-wage jobs with an average salary over $100,000, Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels said.

The grand opening kicked off with a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Daniels and Orbital ATK executives. Afterward, the company hosted an information session for press, staff, government officials and other interested parties that included talks by Daniels and company executives.

Orbital has a presence in 18 states across the country, and Arizona contains one of the company’s largest single state footprints with over 1,950 employees spread across locations in Gilbert, Chandler and Mesa.

The company officially moved engineers into the building in mid-June, culminating the 16-month-long build.

The company chose to expand in Gilbert due, in part, to its longstanding business relationship with the town. The company’s Gilbert manufacturing facility came out of the ground in 2001 and has played a large role in Gilbert’s economic development since that time.

“The sleepy, conservative enclave of Gilbert was about to be tossed into the big leagues,” said Gilbert Chamber of Commerce Joan Krueger, who was present at that groundbreaking back in 2001.

Tax incentives along with ready access to an educated workforce – buoyed by STEM programs at ASU, Chandler-Gilbert Community College and nearby Mesquite High School – also played a role in Orbital ATK’s decision to expand in Gilbert, Kettner said.

The new facility also solves some logistical problems for the company by allowing for easy collaboration between engineering and manufacturing teams. Those groups often work hand in hand, and the co-location will allow the company to build and integrate systems under one roof.

“Gilbert is business friendly and very proactive,” Kettner said. He added that the town is family friendly, which is an important consideration for much of the company’s workforce.

Safety and quality-of-life concerns were also taken into account as the new facility will cut down on commute times for engineers who will no longer have to travel between two sites, said Frank Culbertson, Orbital ATK Space Systems Group president.

Currently, the company has several programs in production at the Gilbert manufacturing facility for public and private entities.

It is under contract with Thales Alenia Space to assemble, integrate and test 81 spacecraft for the Iridium NEXT program.

It is also working on the Ionospheric Connection Explorer satellite for University of California Berkeley/Space Sciences Laboratory and ICESat-2 ice topography measurement program managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Program Center.

Additionally, the facility is going to begin production on Landsat9 and JPSS-2, which will contribute to programs run by NASA, United States Geological Survey and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Landsat9 is a $129.9 million project, and JPSS-2 is a $240 million project.

The expansion is another win for Arizona’s robust aerospace manufacturing industry.

During his brief comments, Keith Watkins, Arizona Commerce Authority executive vice president, noted that Arizona’s economy is driven by industry leaders like Orbital ATK. He said a PricewaterhouseCoopers report ranked Arizona number one in aerospace manufacturing attractiveness nationwide.

“This expansion enhances Arizona’s already impressive aerospace and defense industry,” Watkins said.

Arizona has managed to develop this industry despite a political climate that is not always friendly to weather and climate science, disciplines that often use satellites created by Orbital ATK.

“Our strong demographics and commitment to the industry speak for (themselves),” Daniels said. “Because we all work so well together as region in the East Valley, we are lucky to attract employers like Orbital ATK.”

Kettner views Orbital ATK’s presence in Arizona as a net positive and a resource to keep an open dialog about climate change in the state. He referenced a carbon emission observatory manufactured by the company as a tool to help educate people.

“There are things technically that we can provide that can help us all make more informed decisions,” he said.

– Reach Wayne Schutsky at 480-898-6533 or wschutsky@timespublications.com.

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