A Faster Way To Buy a Satellite

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s Rapid Spacecraft Development Office (RSDO) at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., has offered NASA and other U.S. government agencies extremely fast procurement of proven satellite buses and components since 1998. Where most spacecraft procurements can take upward of a year, RSDO helps mission managers put a satellite under contract in as little as 30 days, according to RSDO manager Greg Smith.

In November, RSDO issued a call for proposals from industry contractors looking to join the agency’s forthcoming catalog of preapproved spacecraft bus vendors, the third such catalog RSDO has released in just over a decade.

The catalog, which Smith says is updated every five years, comprises a variety of contracts written for existing common spacecraft buses and components that meet NASA requirements. Government customers can base their orders on one of the standard contracts, customizing it as needed to suit mission requirements.

“It’s a set of master contracts for each of these buses,” Smith said, adding that during each five-year period, new vendors can be added to the mix, “so the catalog does not get stale.”

Smith said the catalog usually includes six or eight contractors, though he expects closer to a dozen vendors will compete for space in the new catalog, dubbed Rapid 3. Smith issued the catalog solicitation in early November, and expects to announce contract awards in April.

“Right now we’re looking at interest from eight to 10 vendors,” he said Nov. 3. “They’ve shown interest … and they’ve gotten a good feel for our requirements and what we’re expecting.”

With each new catalog, those requirements increase in complexity and scope, Smith said. Back in the late 1990s, entry into the first catalog meant that vendors had merely to build a spacecraft and lead it successfully through integration and testing.

“In the second, we increased the bar a little more,” Smith said. “They also had to integrate and test the payload, like the science instruments, and then do observatory system-level testing [and] get it to the launch pad and mate it with the launch vehicle.”

And for Rapid 3? “We’ve gone just a little bit farther in that we require them to have taken their spacecraft all the way through launch and what we call on-orbit checkout,” Smith said. “When you get the spacecraft to orbit, there’s a period of time, initially, 30 to 90 days, where the spacecraft contractor checks out the spacecraft and makes sure it’s working properly and supporting all the science instruments properly. And they have to have done it twice within their company — built the spacecraft and taken it to orbit two times.”

Smith says the new requirements will weed out some fledgling firms. But they also will reduce risk to NASA missions.

“It makes sure they’re really experienced, and have ironed out their processes,” he said.

In addition to on-orbit verification, Smith says, NASA will require vendors to meet rigorous mission assurance standards in order to gain entry into the catalog. In the past, he said, guaranteeing on-orbit success was not necessary until the customer was ready to place an order.

“Now we’ve decided to place the mission assurance requirements at the master contract level, instead of waiting until … the delivery level,” he said.

Smith says that RSDO’s catalog of master procurement contracts simplifies the acquisition process for both the government and the vendor.

“You spend less time on the government side developing the procurements, and then on the contractor side they spend less time writing proposals,” he said. “We’ve already got the contract in place, so they’re writing a proposal for a task order. It takes us less time and less manpower.”

Smith says that even with the additional requirements in Rapid 3, his office expects to maintain its quick turnaround of 30 days to 90 days.

“As time has moved on, our procurements have gotten a little more complicated because we’re stringent in our quality assurance and mission assurance,” he said. “It’s possible our time could go up a little bit, but I’m hoping that we know our process very well here, and we’ll have that worked out so things will not take as long. I think we’ll be able to stick close to those times.”

Smith describes RSDO as a one-stop shop for fast-paced space research and development missions for any of the government’s spacefaring agencies.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from other agencies,” he said, including the Defense and Energy departments and various intelligence offices whose missions involve flying satellites. RSDO is working with the U.S. Air Force on the service’s Operationally Responsive Space program, which involves rapid development of an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system for U.S. Central Command.

“They’ve talked to us a lot about using us to answer that call and helping them buy spacecraft, and also to buy spacecraft components,” Smith said, explaining that RSDO’s catalog includes a variety of spacecraft subsystems, such as propulsion units, attitude control systems, solar arrays and “anything that makes up a spacecraft.”