SAN FRANCISCO — After a long day of meetings with partners and prospective customers at the 2012 Farnborough International Airshow, Stanley Oakman Kennedy Jr. and Maureen O’Brien were enjoying pints of Guinness in a London pub when they learned that Comtech Telecommunications Corp. planned to shut down operations of their employer, small-satellite builder Comtech AeroAstro.
“My first question was whether our tickets home were still good,” said Kennedy, Comtech AeroAstro’s senior vice president and general manager for commercial, civil and international programs. “The answer was yes. So we had another pint and started talking about what to do.”
It did not take long for Kennedy and O’Brien, Comtech AeroAstro’s director of space trade and international affairs, to come up with a plan. After learning of Comtech AeroAstro’s planned closure on July 13, 2012, they flew home to the United States on July 14. The following day, Kennedy and his father, Stanley Kennedy Sr., a physicist with extensive experience overseeing the development of nuclear weapons and satellites, electronically filed with the state of Colorado to establish Oakman Aerospace Inc. (OAI) on July 15. O’Brien could not join the firm immediately because she remained with Comtech assisting with the closure of AeroAstro.
Oakman Aerospace Inc. at a Glance
Established: July 2012
Top Official: Stanley Oakman Kennedy Sr., chief executive
Location: Littleton, Colo.
It took two more days for the Kennedys to prepare and submit a 70-page proposal to Comtech AeroAstro and Comtech Telecommunications Corp. offering to take over leases and equipment liabilities related to the firm’s Littleton, Colo., engineering and component manufacturing facility in exchange for intellectual property associated with the AeroAstro division’s commercial, civil and international business. After protracted negotiations, the two sides reached an agreement on Aug. 23, 2012.
One reason the Kennedys and O’Brien were so eager to establish OAI was the great potential they saw in the technology and expertise developed by Comtech AeroAstro. Although the business had suffered recent setbacks, including the U.S. Navy’s decision in mid-2012 to cancel plans for a star-mapping satellite known as Joint Milli-Arcsecond Pathfinder Survey, it also was attracting commercial and international customers. Just two days before Comtech announced plans to close AeroAstro, the division received a multimillion-dollar order for small-satellite mission modeling and simulation work.
OAI continues that type of work and provides a variety of products and services related to space systems architectures, spacecraft design and development as well as mission payload and data distribution services.
During its first year of operations, OAI completed construction of its Littleton headquarters with a secured engineering space of more than 437 square meters, including 92 square meters devoted to its Commercial Test Facility and Commercial Modular Testbed.
“We not only got our operations and procedures in place but we managed to do that without losing dollars the first year, which was really good as a startup,” Kennedy said. In July 2013, OAI announced revenue of more than $2 million in its first year.
Approximately 75 percent of OAI’s business stems from commercial space programs and roughly 50 percent of that work is performed for customers outside the United States. “A number of international companies interested in penetrating the North American space market come to firms like OAI for help in understanding the rules and regulations and also to win new business,” Kennedy said. Through its relationships with international partners, Oakman Aerospace is finding new international markets for its products and services, he added.
OAI is registered with the U.S. State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), which enables the firm to apply for licenses to sell spacecraft-related products and services to customers outside the United States. For example, OAI is working under a DDTC Technical Assistance Agreement to support Magellan Aerospace, Winnipeg of Winnipeg, Manitoba, a division of Magellan Aerospace Ltd., on the Canadian Space Agency’s Radar Constellation Mission, three satellites scheduled to launch in 2018 with synthetic aperture radars to capture high-resolution imagery of Canada and its surrounding oceans.
In September 2013, Magellan Aerospace announced a 110 million Canadian dollar ($99 million) contract award from Radar Constellation Mission prime contractor MDA Corp. to manufacture the constellation’s spacecraft buses. The following month, OAI announced plans to provide Magellan Aerospace with systems engineering, mechanical engineering and product assurance support.
“Technical and schedule compliance are top priorities as we proceed with bus manufacturing,” said Philip Ferguson, Magellan Aerospace, Winnipeg engineering manager. “Magellan requires a staff of experienced and capable individuals, specifically in the areas of mechanical engineering, product assurance and assembly, integration and test.”
A DDTC Technical Assistance Agreement is allowing Magellan and OAI to cooperate on engineering tasks. “Today, OAI has three employees working on-site at Magellan, Winnipeg to support the mechanical, product assurance and assembly, integration and test teams,” Ferguson said by email. “These individuals from OAI bring experience from past U.S. civil and military space programs.”
OAI also is exploring business opportunities with Sweden’s ÅAC Microtec AB under a strategic Memorandum of Understanding and a Master Services Agreement, and working with RUAG Aerospace USA of Denver, part of Zurich-based RUAG Space.
“OAI provides us with end-to-end mission scenarios in a software simulation environment,” Albert Lepore, RUAG Aerospace USA technologies and programs director, said by email. “This gives us the ability to plug in our advanced technology and see how it will operate in mission situations.”
Specifically, OAI is helping RUAG evaluate advanced technology used in space laser communication. With OAI technology, RUAG has been able to compare its laser communication with radio frequency links. “This comparison will allow us to show whether we are on the right track, reveal the pros and cons, and direct redesigns, if necessary,” Lepore said.
OAI performs similar work for other customers. “People come to us with components and subsystems,” Kennedy said. “They want to understand how those systems would work in a full, dynamic simulation. In the past, they would have had to go to a large space prime contractor for that type of service.”
After slightly more than 19 months in business, Kennedy is optimistic about OAI’s future. “I see incredible opportunities right now in the commercial space market for companies that have innovative new technology that can provide rapid and responsive low-cost systems,” he said. “Those companies will not only survive in the marketplace, but thrive.”
That is not to say, however, that establishing a new business is not challenging. Like any startup, OAI grapples with personnel, cash flow and capital investment issues. In addition, OAI’s government and commercial customers face significant budget constraints. Plus, the firm is watching the Obama administration’s export control process closely to determine what procedures company officials will need to establish to comply with new rules for products and services that move from the U.S. State Department’s Munitions Control List to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Commerce Control List. “Those factors are all conspiring to keep me up at night,” Kennedy said.