WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s decision to hold a fresh competition to build a second Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) system satellite is an example of a government agency made gun-shy by “a protest-rich environment” in which losing bidders often challenge government contract awards, according to Craig R. Cooning, general manager of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems.
In a March 16 press briefing, Cooning said Boeing, which teamed with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., to build the first SBSS satellite, was prepared to enter into a firm, fixed-price contract for the second SBSS, which is intended as an identical copy of the first.
Instead of awarding a sole-source contract to Boeing and Ball, the Air Force has elected to hold a competitive bidding round with the intention of awarding a new contract this year. Cooning said a draft request for proposals for a second SBSS is expected from the Air Force in April.
The SBSS program has not had a trouble-free development history. It is now estimated to cost some $800 million — more than double the initial estimate — not including the long-delayed launch aboard a Minotaur 4 rocket. Delays in the Minotaur’s availability have pushed the launch back to late this year, and the first SBSS satellite has been placed into storage.
SBSS and its elaborate ground infrastructure are part of an emerging space situational awareness program that includes ground- and space-based gear to track in-orbit satellites and orbital debris. One of the program requirements is that SBSS be integrated into the Air Force’s existing Space Surveillance Network of ground-based radar and optical sensors that track what is in orbit.
SBSS would operate in geostationary orbit at 36,000 kilometers over the equator, where most telecommunications satellites operate. The second satellite is intended to be placed on the opposite side of the geostationary arc to facilitate surveillance of the entire geostationary-orbit population. The SBSS satellites are designed to keep tabs on the geostationary-orbit arc from lower orbits.
With the nonrecurring engineering costs for SBSS already incurred, Boeing and Ball would be able to build a second SBSS satellite and ground gear for much less than the first satellite. Industry officials say that for a program such as this, a carbon copy of the original SBSS should be at least 40 percent less expensive than the first, depending on what new ground hardware is required. Cooning said a second SBSS would be less expensive but declined to be more precise.
Ironically, the delayed launch of SBSS may have made the Boeing-Ball case even stronger insofar as their SBSS teams must be kept intact until the satellite’s launch and in-orbit checkout. Without the need to reconstitute a manufacturing team, the incumbents would be able to lower their cost and pass some of those savings onto the customer, Cooning said.
Given the incumbent team’s advantages, the coming bid competition may be a mere formality.
But the Air Force apparently feels the need to protect itself against future allegations of anti-competitive behavior and the protests that could result.
Among the companies that have filed formal protests of contract awards and then had them rebuffed is Boeing itself. The company in 2008 protested an Air Force decision on a refueling tanker, a protest that upended the program and may end with Boeing as the sole bidder for the contract. In 2009, Boeing protested a NASA decision to award a weather satellite contract to Lockheed Martin, freezing the program in its tracks, before dropping the protest.