When a U.S. Air Force C-5 cargo plane took off March 2 from Moffett Field, Calif., bound for Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., carrying the first dedicated missile warning spacecraft in the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), Brig. Gen. (select) Roger Teague was aboard as well.

Teague, director of the Infrared Space Systems Directorate at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), and Jeffrey Smith, vice president and SBIRS program manager for prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems, had no intention of letting the SBIRS geosynchronous-orbit satellite, GEO-1, travel alone to Cape Canaveral in preparation for a scheduled May launch. The two men have invested too much time and energy in the spacecraft to let it take such an important trip without them.

During a decade of development woes, SBIRS program managers tackled software problems, sensor trouble and materials issues. Cost overruns triggered four Nunn-McCurdy breaches, the reports to Congress required when program cost growth reaches certain thresholds. In 2006, the Air Force initiated a parallel project, the Alternate Infrared Sensor System, as a fallback in case SBIRS failed to produce a reliable replacement for the aging constellation of Defense Support Program (DSP) missile warning satellites.

That’s all in the past, said Teague, who was recently nominated and confirmed to succeed Brig. Gen. Samuel Greaves as SMC vice commander. Two SBIRS sensors are already in space, hosted on classified satellites in highly elliptical orbit (HEO). Air Force plans call for the $11 billion SBIRS constellation to include at least four geosynchronous satellites and an extensive ground network.

Teague spoke with Space News correspondent Debra Werner at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Sunnyvale, Calif.

What’s the status of the SBIRS program?

We are on pace to proceed with launch of our first geosynchronous spacecraft.

After being the brunt of everybody’s favorite acquisition joke, perseverance and persistence have paid off and this program is now going to deliver. We’ve got a great system that is going to serve the nation very well for many years.

Have the GEO-1 satellite’s software issues been resolved?

Yes. A majority of the flight software was redesigned. We broke it down and effectively started from scratch. … While at the time it was certainly a setback for the program, it was absolutely necessary. I have great confidence that the software is going to continue to serve this program very, very well.

When is the second geosynchronous satellite, GEO-2, scheduled to launch?

It does not have a scheduled launch date. GEO-2 will complete its integration and testing activities about a year from now. From that point, it’s a decision for U.S. Strategic Command, based on other national security space priorities.

That timing gives us a chance to first understand and characterize GEO-1’s performance and make sure we completely understand how to successfully operate that satellite. Then we can prepare to launch GEO-2.

What challenges has the SBIRS program overcome?

That’s been well documented. We had a lot of issues to overcome, but we’ve done that. We came together as a team. We worked through these challenges and addressed the problems one by one. I know you are going to see a system on orbit that will demonstrate success.

What lessons can be learned from the SBIRS program?

There is a need to perform systems engineering right, up front and early. Make sure you have established, well-documented and clearly understood technical baselines. And make sure the requirements are clearly understood at all levels, including the subcontractor and vendor levels.

The contracting philosophy at the time SBIRS began relied on a lot of commercial applications or best practices. From SMC’s perspective, we see a need to go back to basics. There is a place for military specifications and standards for parts acceptance.

Many of these issues were born of the fact that some of the systems engineering and some of the design assumptions and architecture assumptions were flawed in the beginning. Once you start out on an incorrect vector, it’s really hard to recover. It’s like when the quarterback calls the play. Well, the incorrect play was called. It’s hard to start over.

This program began in the mid-1990s. Have component suppliers been lost along the way?

The original SBIRS program included a total of five geosynchronous satellites. Then, unfortunately, through a series of Nunn-McCurdy breaches, the program was scaled back. There was significant doubt whether we would ever be able to build these systems. That produced additional challenges and implications for the vendor base. It complicated plans to deliver the third and fourth satellites as originally designed.

It’s a real challenge for the nation to assure that the vendor base still represents valid capability as you contemplate future growth in this mission area or additional satellite purchases. It’s a real challenge because there is no stability, no continuity. How can our industry partners plan ahead? We are trying to work through some of these issues with Dr. Ashton Carter, the defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics. As we plan future acquisition programs across the space enterprise, these issues are certainly at the forefront.

How do you address those issues?

You want to ensure mission performance across the different mission areas, but you also want to promote competition. The SBIRS program is delivering state-of-the-art technology. This is going to be the most advanced-capability infrared satellite ever fielded. The capabilities of this system are phenomenal, but at the same time we also know that this system was born in the mid-1990s. Since then, we’ve seen advances in technology that we would like to be able to consider as part of future blocks or future upgrades or future platforms or future systems.

Is SBIRS still state of the art?

Yes, it is. When we start getting into specific capabilities we quickly start going into classified material. As an example of the capability, look at congressional support for the HEO system. Congress added $15 million for the program in 2009 and $13.8 million in 2010. It’s a strong vote of confidence on behalf of the U.S. Congress that SBIRS can deliver on its capabilities.

As a result of the HEO systems performance on orbit, we realized that we have a whole lot of capability here we never even contemplated or realized. We are trying to understand the military utility of those capabilities and how can we process and disseminate that data.

What capabilities does GEO-1 offer?

The HEO sensors have the scanning capability. With GEO-1, we are bringing in an additional staring component. That is going to allow theater commanders to stare at localized regions of the Earth — areas that might be in close proximity to them. That will help them understand what threats might be in their area. Then, they can obviously plan to deal with those threats in a much more effective and responsive manner.

What’s the cost?

The average procurement cost of a SBIRS satellite is $1.3 billion.

GEO-1 is the first of its kind. It’s a developmental article and it has borne the brunt of those costs. All that effort, all those issues, all of those problems, GEO-1 has borne. GEO-2 has come along right in its shadow and is doing exceptionally well.

All the lessons of GEO-1 have been applied. Now, as we start initial fabrication of GEO-3 and GEO-4, the recipe is there. We understand how to apply those lessons. So naturally we are working very aggressively to drive program costs down and drive unit costs down.

We can just go build more of the same until we decide that we want to incorporate new technology or make changes. And we will only do so when we feel we’ve got the proper understanding of a requirements change and/or technology we can safely insert

How important is it that you launch on time?

It’s important. NASA has a couple of missions scheduled for launch later this summer: the Juno mission to Jupiter in August and the Mars Science Laboratory in November. So that is going to consume the Atlas 5 pad and resources. That’s a commitment the Air Force made.

We have done a lot of homework to make sure we understand all the aspects of successfully processing GEO-1 at the Cape. We know there are going to be some first-time integration challenges. We have 22 days of margin built into our schedule. So we have some flexibility. And beyond that, we have until the middle of May to launch in case there are weather delays. I believe we’ve got a good shot at being able to get this done.

Is there a national security imperative to launch on time?

No. I wouldn’t say that. From a national security perspective, DSP continues to give us phenomenal performance and the capabilities we need. It’s important to get GEO-1 on orbit, understand its performance and get it operational. Then, you can start planning when to launch GEO-2 and GEO-3.

When will GEO-1 begin delivering data?

To ultimately achieve missile warning certification through U.S. Strategic Command takes nearly 18 months. We have to make sure the messages are absolutely, positively, 100 percent accurate.

But we may be able to deliver capability to the technical intelligence folks in as little as five to six months — as soon as we feel comfortable the information is valid. Our initial short-term goal is to get them plugged in.

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...