Back in late September, we reported on the efforts of New York-based company Honeybee Robotics to build a space shotgun designed to shoot asteroids. That’s a pretty cool thing to report, but, no, this weapon isn’t meant to blow up big doomsday asteroids out of the night sky before they can wipe out all life on Earth. No, the space shotgun is meant to help NASA conduct its planned Asteroid Redirect Mission with the goal of knocking a boulder off a near-Earth asteroid and into lunar orbit for subsequent study. Honeybee’s shotgun would basically be used to find out how strong the asteroid rock is firing a projectile that cracks it or bounces off of it or creates a crater.
It’s not exactly a Death Star, but still pretty damn cool. With the company located at just a stone’s throw away at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I more or less had to go looking for it. This is what you do when you’re, well, me.
To be honest, I didn’t know if the company would have the shotgun in Brooklyn. Honeybee has two other locations (Pasadena, California and Longmont, Colorado) that could be housing the actual product. That didn’t deter me though — if they didn’t have the shotgun in Brooklyn, I was dying to see anything else they were working on. Honeybee has built a ton of other space-based technologies, including an asteroid water extractor, a rock abrasion tool and icebreaker drill for use by a Mars rover, and tons of other stuff. Surely, they’d have something incredible to show off and, this being Brooklyn, I figured they just might offer me a cold brew and a tour.
They didn’t. Honeybee ignored all press requests, which was disappointing, albeit understandable given the nature of their work. Still, if they thought that would deter me, they didn’t know me at all. (They didn’t know me at all.) On Thursday, I redirected my commute toward the space shotgun.
For those unfamiliar, the Navy Yard was long the industrial hub of New York City. For more than 150 years, the shipyard, which covered 200 acres in its heyday, was churning out military and merchant vessels left and right (port and starboard). But the shipyard was closed in 1966, and Brooklyn shipbuilding is more of a one-off artisanal thing now.
In recent years, the Navy Yard has been shedding much of its old industrial look and activity. There is constant renovation and reconstruction taking place down Flushing Avenue, with huge new complexes being erected. Many businesses have taken notice — just down the road is a new Chase Bank location. Across the street, employees who work in the area can get their hipster coffee fill at Brooklyn Roasting Company. BLDG 92 is home to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center, a museum dedicating to preserving the industrial history of the area.
It’s a bit jarring to see old rusted manufacturing warehouses sitting next to fresh, modern buildings filled with tech firms and startup offices, where optimistic 20-somethings go to work every day — but not unpleasant.
The space shotgun doesn’t just happen to be here. At the Municipal Art Society of New York’s annual MAS Summit a few weeks ago, a panel of four entrepreneurial planners discussed how they were working to turn to the Navy Yard into an ‘innovation corridor’ — a “nexus Rockefeller Center for Brooklyn” as Jared Kushner of Kushner Companies described it. With many companies outsourcing manufacturing needs overseas, development firms are trying to turn the Navy Yard into a version of Silicon Valley that taps into Brooklyn’s “ecosystem of creativity.”
Honeybee moved from Midtown Manhattan to the Navy Yard last year, after waiting two years for space to open up. And that’s what brought me to 63 Flushing Avenue, where the company is currently based. Honeybee’s suite sits behind a row of metal fences that stretch for blocks on end. The only entrance is a manned gate at the intersection of Flushing and Cumberland Street
As expected, the guards at the gate shooed me away when it quickly became clear I was not invited, refusing to take pity on a young journalist who wanted to show Honeybees’ revolutionary work off to a public thirsty for knowledge. “Thirsty for knowledge” is not a phrase that security guards, as a group, hold in high esteem.
As I walked back down the street, I noticed a big group of elementary school students making their way into the very building I was denied access to. Perhaps this was a roundabout way to try to get into BLDG 92’s museum.
But what I suspected — feared, if I’m being honest — was that these children who could barely read novels longer than 50 pages were scooping me of my opportunity to check out the space shotgun. They’d write report later: “The space gun was good. I was happy.” I was gonna get scooped.
I hopped over into a small sandwich shop — J&J Navy Yard Sub Shoppe — across the street looking for a cup of coffee. The store looked old, and I figured the employees there had probably seen how fast the Navy Yard was transforming in the last few years. I asked them if they knew about Honeybee Robotics in the building across the street, and they nodded, through perhaps just out of politeness.
“Did you know they’re building a space shotgun out there?” I asked.
The guy behind the counter shrugged.
A pair of customers — seemed like college kids — also demurred. “Oh, that’s interesting…” one said. “It’s a space shotgun!!” I wanted to exclaim. “Don’t you understand how fucking ridiculous that is?”
I paid for my coffee and booked it.
Around the whole area, it seems no one is really sure — or particularly cares — what Honeybee Robotics is up to, or, for that matter, what other companies are doing at the Navy Yard. This doesn’t strike me as a comment on the work of the Stoics at Honeybee, but as an interesting insight into the current state of Brooklyn’s “ecosystem of creativity.” People who live at Cape Canaveral know what’s up. Hell, people who live in Palo Alto can point you toward the Ames Research Center. But, in New York, people just mind their own damn business.
Maybe that makes this the perfect place to build something spectacular. Maybe that takes the spectacle out of the process of building something. Either way, I’m excited for innovation and progress, even if I can’t see it.