Eight months after acquiring Spectrum Astro, General Dynamics Corp. is trying to beef-up the small-satellite maker to win large U.S. government prime contracts without stifling the creativity that made Spectrum Astro successful in its traditional market niche.

General Dynamics executives see a winning combination in Spectrum Astro’s satellite-making prowess and its new parent company’s experience with payloads, ground systems and large-scale system integration for the U.S. Department of Defense. This should enable General Dynamics to go toe-to-toe with the other major primes to build big satellites for the Pentagon and NASA, said Ron Taylor, vice president and general manager of the space and national systems division at General Dynamics Command, Control, Communications and Computers Systems.

Taylor’s division, which is based in Scottsdale, Ariz., oversees Spectrum Astro’s business.

General Dynamics completed its purchase of Gilbert, Ariz.-based Spectrum Astro in July 2004. The satellite unit now is known as General Dynamics Spectrum Astro Space Systems.

Prior to the acquisition, Spectrum Astro cast itself as a lower-priced alternative to the big spacecraft builders like Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., and Boeing Co. of Chicago. Led by a maverick president in W. David Thompson, Spectrum Astro found success in the mid to late 1990s as a maker of small to medium-sized research satellites, but its ambitions to win contracts for larger operational systems went largely unfulfilled.

The company made a big splash in 1999, when it stunned Lockheed Martin to win a lucrative design contract for a satellite-based missile tracking system, but that program has since been restructured and Spectrum Astro’s role minimized. More typical was the experience on the U.S. Navy’s satellite-based Mobile User Objective System, where Spectrum Astro was knocked out of the running before serious money began to flow.

Spectrum Astro may have suffered from a perception within the Pentagon that it was too small to handle the big jobs , Taylor said. The ability to draw on the corporate-wide experience of Falls Church, Va.-based General Dynamics should help dispel that perception , he said.

Ron Graves, director of defense systems at Spectrum Astro Space Systems , declined to identify any satellite contracts the company is targeting . But he said he is encouraged by the Pentagon’s interest in the last few years in developing small satellites that can be built and launched on relatively short notice.

Brett Lambert, executive vice president for strategy, ventures and development at DFI International, a consulting firm here, said the combination of Spectrum Astro and General Dynamics looks good on paper, but the execution of the idea cannot be judged until the new company gets a few competitions under its belt.

The Pentagon sometimes prefers to go with a new company rather than the incumbent on new satellite projects, which indicates that there is room for another prime contractor , particularly one that may propose creative solutions, Lambert said. Now that Spectrum Astro is part of General Dynamics, its chances may be better than in the past, but the company has yet to have the opportunity to prove it , he said.

Comments: jsinger@space.com