Millennium Space Systems keeps a low profile. Like many small companies that build satellites for national security agencies, the 55-person firm issues few press releases and company executives rarely respond to media inquiries.

In recent years, however, Torrance, Calif.-based Millennium has attracted attention by winning contracts from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to design and develop low-cost small satellites to provide tactical imagery on-demand as part of the Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) program. Millennium also built the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Rapid Pathfinder, a 235-kilogram spacecraft launched in 2011 on Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Minotaur 1 rocket. Rapid Pathfinder, a technology demonstration mission, progressed from program design review to launch in less than two years at a cost of less than $20 million, then-NRO Director Bruce Carlson said in 2011.

In addition, Millennium participated in Boeing Co.’s team competing for contracts in DARPA’s Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange (F6) program. The Boeing-led team was one of four selected in 2008 to demonstrate key technologies to enable multiple small satellites to share the duties of a larger spacecraft. In late 2009, DARPA awarded a single contract to Orbital Sciences to produce detailed designs and conduct ground testing of F6 technology. Earlier this year, DARPA canceled plans to proceed with an F6 formation-flying demonstration.

Millennium, which is privately held and employee-owned, was established in 2001 by Stan Dubyn, former chief operating officer of Spectrum Astro Inc., a company acquired by General Dynamics Corp. in 2004 and sold to Orbital Sciences in 2010. Vince Deno joined Millennium in 2005 after leaving the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), where he led space operations demonstrations in the Directorate of Development and Transformation.

Deno spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.

What should people know about Millennium?

Fundamentally, Millennium is a space systems provider. We tend to work best with customers who have a very demanding goal or objective and may not know exactly how to achieve it. We will assemble the right team to help them achieve those goals within their programmatic constraints.

What is your niche? Is it building small satellites quickly?

We specialize in developing highly effective, rapidly delivered solutions: systems that take anywhere from 12 months to 48 months to go from authority to proceed to launch. Size, weight and power are important things to consider, but they don’t tell the full story. We like working with demanding customers who have hard problems to solve but don’t have a lot of money and don’t have a lot of time.

We just need to understand what the customer is trying to do and their risk posture.

Tell me about SeeMe.

SeeMe is a really exciting program. Right now, our understanding is that DARPA is not continuing SeeMe past the current phase. In its own way, SeeMe has already been successful. We will be looking to transition that platform and a lot of the cutting-edge technologies and manufacturing techniques that SeeMe has enabled to market within the next year.

Why do you think SeeMe was already successful?

SeeMe’s technical performance requirements were extremely challenging and its cost was extremely low. It required a fundamental rethink in satellite design that bridged the gap between the small-satellite community and high-performance national security space customers. It demanded a radical change in how the program was approached. Through that effort, we have interacted with a much larger community on a relatively small program than we do on some of our larger programs.

You also participated in the first round of DARPA’s F6 program.

DARPA has decided not to continue with the F6 demonstration. Unfortunately, F6 did not turn into a flight program. But I’m sure DARPA will have other opportunities. That’s the way this business is. It’s not for the faint of heart, and we are in it for the long haul.

Tell me about Rapid Pathfinder.

Rapid Pathfinder was a great example of a customer who had some very specific goals and objectives that were not written in the form of a technical requirement or specification document. We were asked to meet some very challenging technical goals for a very low cost within 24 months. It’s a great example of how small government-contractor teams can work closely together to deliver high-quality mission solutions without sacrificing things like mission assurance or testing. We complied with all of NRO’s standard practices for reviews and mission assurance. They were tailored in a smart way so we could meet the mission requirements and program objectives in two years and under $20 million for a full spacecraft bus, payload integration, launch vehicle integration and 30 days on-orbit operations.

Isn’t Millennium working with SMC to explore the potential of small spacecraft to monitor weather?

We are under contract with SMC to look at a disaggregated weather satellite pathfinder. It’s a great example of SMC looking at different ways to achieve relevant operational capabilities. We are applying experience from Rapid Pathfinder and other programs. We have a very credible and low-risk solution to achieve a near-term capability for weather platforms.

How might SMC benefit from disaggregating its weather systems?

If we back off from weather satellites and look at the overall picture, talk of sequestration has provoked thinking. Spending in the Department of Defense is at an all-time high. If you date it back to prior to World War II, we are 40 to 50 percent over historical numbers. So we should be looking at how to execute national security and civil space programs for 50 percent of the existing budget. Just like in your personal lives, a 50 percent cut in your budget will require you to change how you do business. The sooner we realize that and start planning for that inevitability, the better off we will be.

How can government agencies obtain space systems at a much lower cost?

The steps SMC and other organizations are taking are the right ones. They are starting to look at alternative means to providing those capabilities. Whether it is a small satellite or a large satellite, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that the business model is allowed to change to suit the needs of the nation. Disaggregation offers clear advantages for space weather and other missions: resiliency, availability, technology refresh. Looking at alternative business models as viable ways to reinvigorate the industrial base and promote competition is a good thing for the government to be doing.

How does disaggregation help the industrial base? 

More systems provide opportunities for small and large companies to compete in the market space and reinvigorate the industrial base. The next generation of technologies can be introduced in a competitive environment.

What is Millennium’s Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS)?

It started several years ago as a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program to help address a need for low-cost access to space. We were successful in taking that from a Phase 1 SBIR all the way to critical design review. We’ve looked at commercializing that platform.

The original OMS vehicle was sized to carry Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter-sized satellites to various orbits. The market analysis suggested the highest value was to get from geosynchronous transfer orbit to geostationary orbit, because of the lack of access to geostationary orbit for small satellites. On our commercial side, we’ve focused on turning OMS into a cost-effective upper stage to take a relatively large mass to geostationary orbit, medium Earth orbit and even deep-space orbits.

What’s next for OMS?

We have a viable upper-stage design that we feel we could deliver in 18 to 24 months. Coupled with a [Space Exploration Technologies] Falcon 9, it could deliver substantial mass to geostationary orbit if that is of interest to the commercial market.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...