This Pasadena company built the arms on the Mars rovers, now it’s making robotic mechanics for satellites
By Jason Henry
When Rius Billing started at Alliance Spacesystems in 1998, the company had two rooms and less than 20 employees.
Twenty years later, the company now known as MDA U.S. Systems, employs four times as many people in Pasadena and uses three buildings in a Lincoln Avenue industrial park.
MDA U.S. Systems is part of a subtle network of companies linked to the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They operate throughout the city in quiet, sometimes unmarked business parks, with specialties in tough-to-build components necessary for NASA’s biggest missions.
The space systems company built the robotic arms on all of the rovers sent to Mars, but is now branching out to develop technologies that could someday build, and repair satellites in orbit around Earth.
“It’s a tremendous time for us, the growth is not stopping,” said Billing, the chief engineer.
The company has been tied to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory since the beginning. The first 15 employees all came from the nearby NASA facility in La Canada Flintridge. The engineers jokingly referred to Alliance as “JPL South” for years.
Their early contracts included work on Mars landers. But everything changed once they won a major contract to build the arms for NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. The arms carried four scientific instruments for analyzing and imaging soil and rocks.
As a result, the company exploded, hiring dozens of employees and expanding into surrounding buildings. They scraped together upgrades however they could, including dismantling a clean room left abandoned in another building that the owner gave away for free just to see it gone, Billing said.
At their peak, they had their annual Christmas party at Disneyland, with the company footing the bill for employees’ hotel rooms and tickets.
But like most startups, staffing fluctuated dramatically over the years, due to the company’s dependency on big contracts […]