Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Air Force SMC, said in September the service now plans to award the LISC contract in the second quarter of 2014. Credit: SpaceNews

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Five companies have expressed interest in replacing Exelis as the payload provider on the next-generation GPS 3 satellite navigation system now in development and production, an official with prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems said.

Exelis’ struggles on the payload — resulting in delays and one very unhappy U.S. Air Force customer — prompted Lockheed Martin to consider switching suppliers beginning with the ninth satellite in the series. Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems is so far under contract to build eight GPS 3 satellites, with Exelis providing the payloads.

“It’s a possibility,” Mark Valerio, vice president of military space business at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said on the chances of holding a competition.

In a May 19 interview here at the 30th Space Symposium, Valerio said five companies responded to Lockheed Martin’s recent request for information on prospective alternative suppliers. However, he characterized some of the responses as having a “low technology readiness level.”

In a separate interview here, Chris Young, president of Rochester, New York-based Exelis Geospatial Systems, acknowledged the problems on the initial payload, but said things are beginning to come together.

The most technologically challenging component of the three-part payload, the mission data unit, is in thermal vacuum testing, Young said. The other components — the transmitter and atomic clocks — have completed that testing and been mounted on the payload’s main panel board, which measures about 3 meters by 3 meters, he said.

Assuming no more hiccups, Exelis expects to ship the completed payload in July to Lockheed Martin, where it will be integrated with the satellite platform and undergo acceptance testing, Young said. Only after the payload has cleared this phase of testing, which is expected to happen before the end of the year, will it have officially been delivered, he said.

Valerio said components of the payload are now passing tests they had previously failed.

Exelis is working on the first four GPS 3 payloads under a cost-plus development contract, and within the last month was put under a fixed-price contract for fifth through eighth instruments. The first GPS 3 satellite is currently slated to launch in 2016, about two years behind the original schedule.

During a media briefing May 20 here, Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, which is procuring the GPS 3 system, reiterated the service’s displeasure with the way things have gone on the program.

“We want a GPS 3 that does what it’s supposed to do,” Pawlikowski said when asked about the possibility of introducing competition in the payload effort. “They [Lockheed Martin] know we are at best disappointed at the delays we’ve seen in the technical issues that their subcontractor has had.”

Pawlikowski said it is her understanding, based on conversations with Lockheed Martin officials, that the company is looking at a full range of possibilities, including replacing the Exelis payload in its entirety or just some of its components.

“The Air Force has to make that decision,” Young said of the possibility of a new payload competition. “If we have to compete for it we have to compete for it.”

Exelis has been building the GPS payloads, in their entirety or in part, since the program’s inception. Young cited the company’s 30-year history in GPS payload work and said building these kinds of advanced systems is always much easier said than done.

Young noted that the GPS 3 payload will provide three times the position-location accuracy and eight times the power of previous GPS instruments, the latter being important to counter electronic jamming threats. The new payload also is designed to last 15 to 17 years on orbit, 25 percent longer than the existing instruments.

“Am I unhappy with the cost overrun and schedule impacts that we’ve had? I’m not happy with that,” Young said. “But it is a challenging payload — it is state-of-the-art GPS signal generation. It’s always easier to say you can do it than it is to do it.”

Chip Eschenfelder, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, declined to say which companies responded to the request for information.

Craig Cooning, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, said Boeing, which built the current generation of GPS satellites, would bid if the Air Force opts to hold a new competition. Boeing built major payload components for the GPS 2F satellites, including the mission data unit, but that program had its own issues with delays and cost overruns.

Warren Ferster contributed to this story.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...