The U.S. Air Force’s space leadership has laid out two primary challenges for the upcoming years: Build a more resilient space architecture and save money, primarily on the operations end.
But these two mandates might be at odds given that some concepts for increasing resiliency entail overhauling a now-maturing satellite constellation and operations architecture that the Air Force invested billions of dollars to develop. For example, the concept getting most of the attention these days, disaggregation, entails dispersing capabilities that currently are concentrated on large satellites to a variety of different platforms.
As it sorts through the complicated trade-offs involved, the Air Force relies heavily on analyses performed by the Aerospace Corp., a federally funded not-for-profit research center that provides engineering advice on the service’s space programs.
David Gorney, who becomes executive vice president July 1 and previously ran Aerospace’s Space Systems Group, acknowledges the challenge ahead, but notes that cost savings can be carved out at almost any point in the life cycle of a satellite program. For example, with help from Aerospace, the Air Force devised and implemented a new battery-charging technique that helps extend the lives of several on-orbit GPS positioning, navigation and timing satellites.
“One might think, ‘How do you achieve affordability once something is on orbit?’ but actually we’ve seen some very, very good gains in terms of identifying opportunities to increase the life of these systems on orbit,” he says.
Gorney spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.
How do you approach the challenge of finding cost savings on military space programs?
We work with the Air Force across the whole life cycle of systems. When you look at just trying to achieve affordability, there’s never going to be that one silver bullet. It’s not going to be some new technological invention or some idea that’s going to come out of the blue and all of a sudden save you 50 percent of the money that you need to spend on these systems. If it were there, we would have found it already.
The life cycle approach to achieving these affordability goals is critical. You’ll be able to chip away, at the design phase, the manufacturability, the testing protocols. There’s an example with the GPS 2R satellites; we have 20 of them on orbit. If we add two to three years to each of those satellites, that’s 60 years of satellite life. That’s the equivalent of five satellites you don’t have to buy.
Can you do the same thing with other constellations?
We’re constantly looking at those. You do need some history with these systems. The fact that SMC [the U.S. Space and Missile Systems Center] was launching first-of-a-kind systems for the last several years means we’re still in the early learning phase with those programs. As we do get the on-orbit experience, we’ll apply the same lessons learned as we did on the GPS 2R vehicles. I wouldn’t doubt if the same kind of battery management schemes we were able to confidently apply to 2R may also apply to the other vehicles.
Are there other types of operational changes with the potential to provide cost savings on a similar scale?
The other area we worked on quite a lot is reaction wheel assemblies. We’re not ready to claim any big victory yet, but the potential is there. You might recall there was a NASA Kepler mission that failed, not prematurely, but they would have dearly liked to have gotten more life out of it. The failure mechanism there was through this reaction wheel ball bearing wear-out.
So you’d modify the ball bearings?
They move much more efficiently. The frictional loss and the frictional wear-out is much reduced. We’re getting positive gains. I’m sure we’ll be able to get further design life out of those subsystems. How much? I’m not able to say. The reason is these things are still reasonably early in their life.
What kinds of money-saving changes can be made to satellite testing and integration processes?
In terms of the amount of people working on the system and the rate at which the government is incurring cost, it is a very costly phase of the program. Anything you can do to compress the integration and test phase definitely has a lot of value in terms of gaining affordability. We recently participated with Lockheed Martin in a very comprehensive re-review of all the testing protocols on the Space Based Infrared System, Advanced Extremely High Frequency and GPS 3 programs. We were able to assess where we could tailor some of the design protocols.
What did you find?
As you’re building the first-of-kind of vehicles, obviously there’s a lot of focus on the design verification part of testing. You really don’t have to repeat all of that once you get into third, fourth, fifth, sixth vehicle as long as your design remains stable. We did have an opportunity there to look at some of the tests that were really focused on design verification and tailor them out of the process.
How much savings does that translate to in the new SBIRS contract, for example?
There was an excess of $100 million in savings in the next blocks of these vehicles in SBIRS and AEHF. We are confident those cost savings could be achieved and still have the same low-risk posture that the government customer desires. We weren’t just cutting for cutting’s sake. When [former SMC Commander] Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski commissioned this study, she made it very much a point that she wasn’t trying to achieve a particular percentage of cost savings. She wanted to see what could be done and at what risk posture.
How does this help for future constellations?
We just published a series of nine templates for tailoring test standards depending on maturity of the program — the design maturity, the manufacturing maturity — so that when new contracts are put in place you don’t have to put in this lengthy study we went through. If your program meets the criteria in terms of design maturity, you can go to this template for tailoring the standard and achieving the standard.
Are block buys the key to saving money on launch services, or is it competition?
That’s a real good question. It’s difficult to find balance between a block buy and maximizing competitive strategies for launches. In the block buy that was just completed with United Launch Alliance, the emphasis was on providing some stability so they could do long-lead items and get the benefits of their volume. As we enter into an era where we will have more certified providers, the shift will go over into competitive strategy. Really, you’re going to be relying on the competitive nature of the acquisition to help bring those costs down.
Will competitively awarded launches be cheaper than launches ordered in bulk?
We’ll have to see.
Where else can savings be found in satellite launches?
We’ve been working very hard with ULA on looking at the quality of the product being delivered out of the factory. ULA has been doing a tremendous job in bringing down their nonconformances as the rocket is brought from the factory to the launch site and integrated at the launch site. Why is that important? The reason is when you are at a launch site, it is a very costly phase for the mission. A day or a week delay in a launch is a very, very meaningful cost when you bring all those teams together. If the launch vehicle provider is bringing a quality product to the launch site and it integrates cleanly and you hit the launch site and the ranges there are ready to go and you’re paying attention to those factors as well, there are opportunities for tremendous cost savings. I don’t know if anyone has added up the numbers yet but there has been a really, really good performance.
Will disaggregation save the Air Force money?
I think the jury is still out. There’s some hope there. But there are also some things that push in the other direction. Certainly from a resilience standpoint, if you look at taking missions like protected communication it’s a perfect example where if you disaggregate those missions you can potentially achieve some savings by not having the same level of hardening on all missions. However, it is a very, very complicated process.
Can you give me an example of costs associated with disaggregation that people might not think of?
It’s not just drawing up on a clean sheet of paper: this architecture vs. that architecture. We have a program of record we need to transition into a new architecture and that transition process can in and of itself be quite complicated. New ground systems to be both backward and forward compatible, for instance. All of that requires a great deal of system engineering and architecting. There’s a great deal of effort going on right now to make sure the real benefits are thought through before the government commits to going down a particular road.
Can disaggregation lead to savings in launch costs?
That is very highly dependent on the system and architecture that you’re dealing with. Potentially, if you can get a system small enough, so the size, weight and power requirements are substantially less for a given mission performance, you can then look at using smaller launch vehicles. That’s where the launch savings will come in. If you can’t achieve that, you can look at launching several vehicles on a given launch.
Do you expect the Defense Department to reduce its reliance on expensive heavy-class rockets in the future?
There will be a need for a heavy class. It’s a question of to what degree. Several new concepts might be able to be launched at a medium class.
Do you expect an increase in the use of small- or medium-class rockets?
Yes. If we can make some of these disaggregated architectures a reality, I think that will be an outcome.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN