Just one year ago, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. was on top of the world. The company was on track for a record year in bookings, and its civil and commercial space division was poised to reap the benefits following the White House decision to dismantle a joint civil-military weather satellite program.
But contracting with the U.S. government necessarily means accepting a level of uncertainty. Work on several of the Boulder, Colo.-based firm’s satellite contracts has been slowed or halted in recent months, and the outlook for future Earth science missions — one of Ball’s competitive strengths — has dimmed. The company is counting on its national security business and potential commercial and international sales to pick up some of the slack.
Among Ball’s highest-profile civil space programs is the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) created last year after the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama ended the civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). Ball built a satellite called the NPOESS Preparatory Project that was once intended as a demonstration platform but in fact will be used for operational weather forecasting when it is launched later this year. The company also will develop the platform and a key instrument for the JPSS-1 satellite, but funding issues have delayed work on that mission, originally planned for launch as early as 2014.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requested more than $1 billion for JPSS in 2011, but Congress was unable to pass a budget for the first six months of the fiscal year. When a spending bill was finally signed into law April 15, it provided only $382 million for the program. The agency now expects to have a gap in polar-orbiting weather satellite coverage for at least 18 months.
Ball also was tapped last year by the U.S. Navy to build an operational ocean altimetry satellite, a contract that, including options, could have been worth as much as $500 million to the company. But due to budgetary pressures, the Navy did not request any money for the satellite in 2012, said Cary Ludtke, who runs Ball’s civil and commercial space business.
Similarly, NASA did not request funding in 2012 to continue development of a second microwave imager that Ball is under contract to deliver for the Global Precipitation Measurement mission. The first instrument is nearly assembled and will begin environmental testing in June.
On the positive side, Ball recently completed development of the primary instrument for the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, which will be shipped out in June. And in the fall the company will ship the first three of 18 mirrors it is providing for NASA’s flagship-class James Webb Space Telescope.
Ludtke spoke recently with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.
Ball has about 2,700 employees and had sales of $713.7 million last year. How much of that is associated with your civil and commercial space work?
About one-third of the company’s sales come from civil programs, and likewise about one-third of our people are working on civil programs. Over the past 10 years this part of the business has been very positive. Over the past few years, it’s been relatively flat on the civil and commercial side.
Last year, as a company and as a business unit, we had record bookings. But bookings do not equal funding. So we had anticipated potentially significant growth. We may be up a little bit, but we are not where we thought we would be through the first part of the year. We’re fortunate right now that our defense business is having a stronger year than last year. So we’re able to utilize the people that we have that would have otherwise been working on civil programs.
What JPSS-1 work do you expect to complete in the remaining five months of fiscal 2011?
We are currently defining the contract with Goddard Space Flight Center, engaging suppliers and establishing a baseline to match future funding profiles.
Do you know yet how much total JPSS funding you will be allocated this year?
We don’t yet know the exact details. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are building their operations plans based on the recently enacted 2011 budget, and upon delivery of the final roll-ups we will have a clearer understanding.
What civil space programs will you be pursuing in the year ahead?
There are two big ones in the Earth science area. One of them is NASA’s ICESat-2 ice monitoring mission. We built the ICESat-1 spacecraft under a firm-fixed price contract with Goddard Space Flight Center’s Rapid Spacecraft Development Office. We were responsible for development and delivery of the spacecraft bus, the integration of the Goddard-provided payload and launch and early on-orbit operations support. We’re anticipating the follow-on will be awarded this year, and that’s one of my top priorities. The mission objectives are primarily the same, but the satellite bus will likely require a bit more power and the payload will weigh a bit more. The requirements are quite similar to the class of spacecraft served by our BCP-2000 satellite platform.
Another mission coming into focus now is the next Landsat mission. We are delivering this year the payload for the Landsat Data Continuity Mission. But we’re also looking forward to the long-term continuity mission. The Landsat program is now being managed by the U.S. Geological Survey within the Department of the Interior, and they have plans for long-term continuity, which will mean more missions as time goes on. I don’t have insight into what the plan looks like at this time.
The five-year spending plan for Earth science missions that NASA sent to Congress in February contains about $1.7 billion less than last year’s estimate. What will that mean for Ball?
Certainly there will be fewer opportunities to chase, and missions are moving further out in time with the budgetary situation. We’re a significant player in the low Earth orbit remote sensing market. So having those missions pushed out and becoming more infrequent is a concern for us from a business perspective, which is why we’re leveraging some of our technologies in the exploration area to try to backfill some of that.
Given the outlook for Earth science programs, do you expect to reduce your civil work force?
I don’t, because we have the opportunity on the civil side to still grow in areas like exploration enough to offset a thinner portfolio of Earth remote sensing missions. And our commercial business continues to do fairly well. The most visible example is the WorldView-3 spacecraft we are building for DigitalGlobe that will launch in 2014.
What types of exploration missions are you interested in?
We are continuing to aggressively review new exploration opportunities. Areas of potential interest to Ball would be the Office of Chief Technologist flight demonstrations, Space Launch System opportunities, and Earth Science Mission Directorate technology flight demonstrations.
What commercial business opportunities are you targeting?
We’re currently teamed with Raytheon as a subcontractor for the sale of a remote sensing satellite system to the United Arab Emirates. We’re one of two competitors. Final bids are due this summer and we expect that to close this year.
We have another iron in the fire with South Korea, which is interested in putting remote sensing payloads on some of its planned geostationary communications satellites.
What is the status of the NPOESS Preparatory Project spacecraft?
The satellite has completed electromagnetic interference, shock and acoustic testing. It went into our thermal vacuum chamber in March and it will complete that testing in early May. We will do one more final review before we ship the satellite to the launch site in August.
Given the potential for a gap in polar-orbiting weather satellite coverage, would you expect the government to consider delaying the launch of the NPOESS Preparatory Project?
I don’t believe that’s in their trade space. There’s a strong desire to get the spacecraft launched and demonstrate its capability, and I’m fully behind that.