Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor or a key subcontractor on some of the U.S. government’s biggest and most important space development programs, but the outlook appears cloudy given the scarcity of major defense space procurements on the horizon and the uncertain status of the company’s massive contract to build a new generation of weather satellites.

Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems is one of the nation’s top three space companies, with a heritage in building large and complex systems for defense, intelligence and civil government customers. Many of these capabilities came from the acquisition of TRW in 2002.

On the civil side, Northrop Grumman is building the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s largest satellite program in development. The long-delayed $5 billion infrared telescope cleared a key design review in April and is slated for launch in 2014. The company is keeping an eye out for the next Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, expected later this year, which will recommend space telescope missions for NASA to pursue in the decade ahead.

On the unclassified military side, Northrop is supplying the main payloads for the U.S. Air Force’s next generation of satellites for secure communications and missile warning, and also built a pair of recently launched missile tracking satellites for the Missile Defense Agency. The company also builds large classified satellites and payloads for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, and it was awarded an unspecified classified satellite contract in 2008. The company’s space systems revenue was up $201 million last year, largely on the strength of that contract.

Northrop Grumman’s biggest unclassified military space contract is the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), which originally was supposed to merge separate satellite systems operated for military and civilian users. But the White House in February announced that the joint program would be terminated and that the Air Force and NASA would pursue separate systems, leaving uncertain Northrop Grumman’s role in either program.

David DiCarlo leads Northrop Grumman’s space systems division and has held top engineering and management posts with the company since coming over in the TRW acquisition. He spoke recently with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.


What’s the status of your NPOESS contract?

We are under contract with the Integrated Program Office through the Air Force for the program of record. They’ve had some of what I would call minor to modest selective slowdowns in areas that look like they just won’t continue regardless of how the program is reconstituted, but they’re very small at this point. We’re looking forward to both the civil government side and the military side deciding on their plans to move forward with two separate programs.


Is the picture any clearer now than it was when the White House announced its decision to end the joint NPOESS system?

Not much progress on plans for the way forward has been released to date. I believe there’s a lot of work going on in the government to determine the right plan going forward. We’ve had visits from Defense Department and Air Force personnel giving the program good scrutiny, and also a deep dive from the NASA team. I think everyone’s gotten a good understanding of the state of the progress on the program of record: We’re past critical design review and a majority of development risk has been retired. All but one of the first collection of instruments has been delivered.


What role do you envision for Northrop Grumman on the separate weather satellite systems?

That’s a very good question, and I think it depends on the nature of the acquisition plans that the organizations put forward. It’s clear that the government has decided on the civil side that the sensors and most likely the ground elements will be acquired by NASA. It remains to be seen what happens to the spacecraft. We’re still investigating what role we have on the spacecraft going forward with the civil program. With the Defense Department, I think they have a much broader collection of options that they are investigating. So far we haven’t heard what their preference is going to be. We envision that we could maintain a major role serving both customers.


What is the status of the experimental Space Tracking and Surveillance System satellites built for the Missile Defense Agency?

Following launch, we had to make some adjustments to the attitude control system. We’ve gotten both satellites tuned up, and they’re operating nominally. We’re progressing through the calibration of the acquisition and tracking sensors. That’s actually going quite well. They’re ready to engage testing now.


The Missile Defense Agency said this year it will not conduct dedicated missile launches to test the Space Tracking and Surveillance System satellites. Has the test program been finalized?

It’s our understanding the Missile Defense Agency is still in the planning stages with regard to what they’re going to test, and I think it’s wrapped up in some budget issues they’re dealing with. The satellites are designed into the agency’s testing scenarios, so they will be utilized. We’re working together right now to try and understand how to use the demonstrators to best satisfy the agency’s broad requirements. It could be dedicated tests, or it could be part of a greater set of tests that the agency is planning.


What recommendations have you made to the Missile Defense Agency with regard to testing the satellites?

We haven’t made specific recommendations.


What do you see as the biggest development hurdle ahead for the James Webb Space Telescope?

The next phase, once we get through completion of production of the mirrors and the spacecraft, will be the integration. It’s admittedly a tricky integration. We’ve got cryogenic sensors coming in from the government and a lot of cryogenic structure to assemble. We have various locations around the country where we do this integration, so I think the integration in general is going to be interesting. We will be decreasing our program staffing as we get into integration, because by that point most of the engineering content will be done and we’ll be in production mode.


The Air Force is looking at potential upgrades to the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) secure communications satellites, the first of which is scheduled to launch in July. What capabilities do you think should be added on to later satellites?

We are working with prime contractor Lockheed Martin and the Air Force to evaluate options for upgrading AEHF to satisfy a number of unmet requirements from the canceled [next-generation] T-Sat system, most notably communications-on-the-move and airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. There are a number of different ways the payload can be reconfigured and upgraded to do those things. We are under contract right now with the Air Force to study those options, and our work will probably continue through 2011. There’s some work to be done to implement the upgrade plan and get it funded.


Do you see any role for Northrop Grumman in NASA’s new direction for human spaceflight?

Not clear. It’s not an area where we’ve contributed recently. We’re still waiting to see some of the details. There could be some technology roles for us. We do have strong propulsion capability. We have a lot of history in unmanned spacecraft, and, back in time, manned spacecraft. Until we understand what the detailed plan is, we won’t know for sure. My thinking is what we see are more opportunities for us as the pendulum swings back to robotic missions.


What workforce issues are Northrop Grumman and the larger space industry facing?

We are concerned that as we pass through critical design review on many of our programs and launch them, the development and engineering content that follows them isn’t as robust as it has been. Building copies doesn’t keep the engineering work force engaged and growing. That’s a concern that is facing the entire industry.

Implementing AEHF upgrades, as soon as satellites five and six, is one important step in keeping those engineering teams moving. Getting a competition under way and building the follow-on to the Space Tracking and Surveillance System without delay is also important. We’re ready to go.