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Satellite Manufacturers Look for Ways To Reduce Costs

SAN FRANCISCO — When Boeing first approached the U.S. Air Force with plans to produce the seventh, eighth and ninth satellites in the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) communications constellation, the company’s proposal was soundly rejected.

Boeing Space and Intelligence System’s plan to build the new satellites in much the same way it built the first six WGS spacecraft made each satellite too expensive, Mark Spiwak, Boeing’s director for WGS programs, said.

Boeing went back to the drawing board. Instead of following the traditional model for building sophisticated satellites for government customers, Boeing drew on its expertise in building commercial spacecraft to forge a new plan. Boeing offered to build additional WGS satellites under a firm, fixed-price contract, allowing the government to lockin its price. The company also proposed building WGS-7, WGS-8 and WGS-9 as part of a program that featured less government oversight, fewer reporting requirements and less testing.

That approach, which the Air Force approved in 2011, will save the government about $80 million per satellite, David Madden, director of the military satellite systems directorate at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), said Jan. 10 during a conference call with reporters.

“We are not saying this is the right approach for a brand-new satellite development,” Spiwak said. “But this is the right model when you’ve already got four satellites on orbit.”

The Air Force is seeking similar savings in its other satellite programs. During the last decade, SMC worked with Boeing and Lockheed Martin to develop, build and fly first-of-a-kind satellites in the WGS, Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) and Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) constellations. Now that the Air Force has launched the first AEHF and SBIRS satellites as well as four WGS spacecraft, SMC leaders are turning their attention to finding ways to buy satellites more efficiently.

“We have been engaged with our industry partners in seeking ways to drive down the cost of satellites,” SMC Commander Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski said in a March 7 interview. “We are looking for ways to shrink the schedule. Anytime I can reduce the schedule, I have more opportunities to reduce cost.”

Lockheed Martin and SMC officials held meetings last summer and fall to discuss ways to trim the cost of building the fifth and sixth satellites in the AEHF and SBIRS programs, including eliminating unnecessary reporting, and scaling back government oversight and testing, said Mark Valerio, vice president and general manager for surveillance and navigation at Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif.

For example, the Air Force traditionally requires extensive testing to ensure that satellites can withstand the acoustic environment a spacecraft will encounter during launch. When the design has not changed and a company is building the 5th and 6th satellites in a constellation, those tests are no longer necessary, Valerio said. By eliminating that type of requirement, Lockheed Martin will be able to produce satellites more efficiently, reduce the number of people needed to support the effort and save time, he added.

 

Block Buys

The Air Force’s plan to buy satellites in blocks of two instead of purchasing them individually will produce additional cost savings. That approach saves money because Lockheed Martin can synchronize suppliers and order subsystems, parts and components in larger quantities. By purchasing a total of 16 reaction wheels for SBIRS 5 and SBIRS 6, and AEHF 5 and AEHF 6, for example, Lockheed Martin can negotiate a much better price than it could if it were only buying four reaction wheels at a time, Valerio said.

Overall, efforts to streamline the satellite production programs are likely to save the Air Force “upwards of $600 million” on the purchase of the fifth and six SBIRS and AEHF satellites, Valerio said.

The Air Force plans to award a contract this summer to Lockheed Martin to produce the fifth and sixth AEHF satellites. SMC also plans to begin ordering long-lead items for SBIRS 5 and SBIRS 6 in late 2012, and to issue a contract to build the satellites in 2013, Pawlikowski said.

 

‘When Silver Will Do’

Reducing the cost of building satellites is also an overarching goal for Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo. Ball tailors each satellite program to take into account the amount of risk the customer can accept and the mission profile, Alan Frohbieter, Ball’s vice president for program execution, said. As a result, two different programs may be strikingly different in terms of the number of program reviews scheduled, the type of parts used and testing procedures employed. “We develop a risk and rigor profile to match each customer’s needs,” Frohbieter said. “We don’t want to gold-plate when silver will do.”

Ball also seeks to reduce costs by employing a common spacecraft, the Ball Configurable Platform (BCP), for a variety of remote sensing applications. The BCP design was used for the NASA-National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership as well as DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-1 and WorldView-2 commercial imaging satellites. Even when it does not make sense to use BCP for a certain payload because the bus would not support a specific mission’s goals, Ball is likely to use a similar spacecraft design and common avionics, Frohbieter said.

Space Systems Loral also uses standardization whenever possible to reduce satellite costs. Although Space System/Loral specializes in building unique satellites, often the satellite buses and avionics are similar, said Paul Estey, senior vice president of engineering, manufacturing and test operations for Space Systems Loral of Palo Alto, Calif.

Space Systems/Loral also seeks to boost efficiency by employing Six Sigma management strategies. Six Sigma programs, which are widely used in the commercial electronics industry, encourage managers to analyze manufacturing processes, map out work flows and remove any steps that do not add value to the final product. Space Systems/Loral is using that approach to improve efficiency throughout its engineering and manufacturing programs, Estey said.

 

88 Satellites

Satellite industry executives agreed that to contain costs, program managers must lock in mission requirements at the outset. “You want to build and test as early as possible,” Scott Smith, executive vice president of satellite development and operations for Iridium Next, said. “All good program managers do that before committing to flight hardware.”

Iridium Communications of McLean, Va., and Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, plan to build 88 mobile communication satellites for the $3 billion Iridium Next constellation. For an effort of that size to succeed, “we have to try to drive cost down,” Smith said.

Iridium Next program managers spent two years defining the satellite architecture and working with subcontractors to identify expensive components and ways to reduce costs. During that investigation, program managers determined, for example, that they could keep each satellite in its proper orbit without including a GPS receiver on the spacecraft. The team also decided it did not have to restrict itself to using only space-qualified parts. Instead, Iridium Next uses commercial electronic components built in foundries that employ processes designed to make the parts radiation tolerant. When that is not impossible, Iridium Next program officials limit risk by including redundant parts. This is the same approach Iridium used in its original constellation. The oldest satellites in that constellation are nearly 15 years old. So the approach seems to work, Smith added.

 

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