The following story, by Amy Butler in Washington with Michael A. Taverna in Paris, was published in the March 30 Aviation Week & Space Technology
Small satellites have been widely regarded as second-rate by Pentagon and intelligence community officials, who opt for massive, high-technology spacecraft lasting a decade or more in orbit. But the time may finally be at hand for skeptics to begin accepting smaller,
If so, the face of the U.S. satellite industry could change dramatically because smaller satellites are less complex to build. If the barriers to entry into this market are lowered, the standard cast of Pentagon contractors could be joined by smaller, and potentially leaner, upstarts.
Procurement officials at the Pentagon and in the intelligence community are expected to make a number of decisions over the next two years that will impact the shape and constitution of their future satellite fleets. These include choices about the next-generation satellite communications, missile warning and overhead imaging fleets. The traditional big three Pentagon satellite makers—Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman—are standing by with various partnerships and designs for these requirements.
A new variable for defense and intelligence officials is mounting pressure from the Obama administration and Congress to rein in cost. Satellite programs are notoriously among the worst offenders of Pentagon projects gone awry with technology shortfalls, funding overruns and launch delays. So, Pentagon and industry officials expect scrutiny on how they embark on future satellite programs.
One influential Pentagon official says he’s not just looking to the big three contractors to trim around the margins to find savings. Instead, Josh Hartman, senior adviser to Pentagon acquisition czar John Young, is hoping to turn the entire business model for satellite manufacturing upside down. His goal is to reinvigorate an atrophied industry while delivering reliable systems to field commanders.
The entry of smaller, simpler satellites into Pentagon and intelligence architectures is a piece of the strategy. “We are facing institutions that want to buy big things and who are reticent to move away to what is seen as . . . a little more mundane or not as complex,” Hartman says. Officials who generate requirements in the Pentagon “are still more sold on the level of technology than they are on the need for pragmatism in our approach.”
He is facing an uphill battle, however. Industry and Pentagon culture has been fostered under a “bigger is better” philosophy that began with the space race of the 1950s, says Siegfried Janson, a senior scientist at The Aerospace Corp. This company provides much of the systems engineering expertise to the Pentagon and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in developing satellites. Getting humans into space was the focal point around which the national security apparatus and industry blossomed. Launch vehicles were sized for that mission, he says, allowing satellite makers the luxury of large spacecraft buses, power supplies and solar arrays. Cost was ancillary to national security.
“I think the biggest obstacle we have in really understanding how small satellites should play is a cultural one. It is, in part, the way our processes inside the building work,” Hartman says. “Programs are sold on advocacy. And advocacy gets built by having as many people as you can satisfied by what you are offering. And in space, the way that you get people satisfied with what you are offering is to build as much functionality into it as you can.” This inevitably leads program managers in the Pentagon to push for large satellites, often making promises based on immature technology. Long development cycles, requiring a decade or more, are also common; once a system reaches orbit, its technology is generally 10 years old, Hartman says.
An example is the $11-billion Space-Based Infrared System (Sbirs) early-missile-warning constellation, which was conceived in the late 1990s and has been restructured several times. The launch of the first geosynchronous satellite is slated for next year. “We did shoot for the stars, and it is going to cost us a whole lot more money than we ever thought it was going to cost,” he says. “It is going to last on orbit for a long time because we probably overengineered the solution. In the end, we are going to end up with a constellation that is 25-year-old technology once it gets up.”
The Pentagon leadership is examining options for a Sbirs follow-on system that includes smaller, less complex designs using advances in infrared focal-plane-array technology for missile detection.
This provides an opportunity for the Pentagon, Hartman says. “If we adopted a business model that allowed for a greater number of transactions with industry, and allowed for a lower level of complexity in the design and asked for 80% of the solution . . . then I think we would be better served,” he says. Buying more systems that are less robust—perhaps lasting five years in orbit rather than 10—would provide more work for industry and keep teams occupied, while giving the Pentagon more frequent opportunities to insert upgrades.
This model could also provide more predictability for industry to scope its workforce during or between production cycles. “When I build less complex systems, I can shorten the cycle times. And also the net result is I shorten the on-orbit life-cycle times,” Hartman says. For example, if it takes eight years to build a system, and it is designed for six years in orbit, “from that eight-year point to the end of that mission duration, which is right now six years, I have got to find something for my industrial base and my workforce to do.”
One option for simplifying satellites is, for some elements of the architecture, to use parts that are not space-qualified. Mark Sirangelo, executive vice president and chairman of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, says the German SAR-Lupe radar satellite program proved that use of some parts not qualified for space could provide enough savings in manufacture and test to purchase a launch-ready, or even in-orbit, spare.
Lacking the government largesse the U.S. enjoys, European nations have made great strides in building small satellites with effective and reliable systems that draw extensively on off-the-shelf hardware. Industry officials on both sides of the Atlantic say satellite makers in Europe and other countries such as Israel have outpaced the U.S. in this area and offer experience that could benefit U.S. programs.
The Air Force Research Laboratory’s experimental TacSat-2 proved that not all parts have to be space-qualified to be dependable enough to accomplish the mission. This idea is controversial with government customers, which may not want to take risks with their satellites or inject uncertainty into their in-orbit life expectancy.
Janson says reducing testing for space systems is certain to lead to a higher failure rate. But it could be a useful model for some ancillary missions, such as spot communications that may be needed in a region for only a year or two.
Some missions, however, will inevitably drive the government to large satellites. For example, the NRO will likely field large apertures to see in exquisite detail objects on the ground for the foreseeable future. “What gives us the reputation of being the ones that like big satellites . . . is basically the physics,” says USAF Maj. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, deputy director of the NRO, which develops and operates secret U.S. satellites. “When we are doing things in space in which we are trying to take a good picture, we need lots of light. We need something that has a big aperture.”
However, the NRO is also responsible for developing cutting-edge technologies, such as new sensors, that could be adopted into future surveillance architectures. Small satellites are used by the NRO as outreach projects to work with laboratories or universities to test new sensors for demonstrations.
She proposes a model that places launch schedule as a primary element driving a program. If you launch on schedule every five years, for example, operators can store their satellites in orbit. They can then be activated quickly and reduce the risk of a capability gap with an unplanned failure in orbit. The steady production model behind this approach would, in the long run, save about 15% on the life cycle cost of a system,
It could also provide stability for second- and third-tier suppliers, which Pawlikowski says she watches closely. “In many of these places, it is going to be impractical to keep two vendors.” Only one vendor is able to provide space-qualified batteries, says Lt. Gen. John (Tom) Sheridan, Air Force program executive officer for space. Also, there was not enough capacity in the U.S. to properly conduct pyroshock tests, he adds. A more stable funding and procurement profile could help smooth business planning for these parts of the industry.
The model of developing small, single-purpose satellites is one Sierra Nevada is pushing. The company has made an unsolicited proposal to build a small-demonstration imaging satellite for $50 million. It hasn’t been accepted by the Air Force, but “there has been a lot of change in the sense that people are not dismissing it out of hand” as they would have a few years ago, Sirangelo says.
Mike Meermans, vice president of strategy and business development for Sierra Nevada, says the path ahead for small satellites is likely to mimic the slow acceptance of unmanned air vehicles. In the 1990s, they were viewed as a threat by pilots in the Air Force and Navy. Now both services are pouring billions of dollars into their development and procurement.
Though a role model, UAVs could also be a threat to the budding interest in small satellites. Some officials point to UAVs as a sort of panacea for intelligence collection for the Pentagon. The advantage of small satellites, however, is that they don’t require permissive airspace. “Can you get that UAV across the Pakistan border? No.” Sirangelo says.
The Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space Office recently established the “Chile Works,” a small-satellite rapid assembly facility. The goal is to form a center of gravity for small-satellite work and establish processes for development and production outside the cumbersome rules that have produced the large systems with 10-year development cycles.
Peter M. Wegner, the office’s director, says satellite developers have generally used as a metric the dollars per channels provided or images collected. “In that kind of metric, a large satellite will always win,” he says. “What we don’t do a good job of analyzing is the cost benefit of timeliness. This is where small satellites can really offer something different.”