SAN FRANCISCO — Lockheed Martin Space Systems is gearing up to produce the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation GPS navigation satellite in a roughly 4,000-square-meter production facility that has more in common with advanced aircraft assembly lines than low-volume satellite production plants.

During the last three years, Lockheed Martin gutted the former Atlas and Centaur rocket assembly plant in Littleton, Colo., and built a production line large enough to accommodate six or seven satellites at a time. The facility includes dedicated thermal vacuum and anechoic chambers as well as a 2,800-square-meter high bay with room for four spacecraft.

“There is enough volume to put together a true production line, which makes the spacecraft more affordable,” said Keoki Jackson, GPS 3 program manager for Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

Lockheed Martin is using the new factory for final assembly, testing and integration of the GPS 3 Non-flight Satellite Testbed (GNST), a prototype of the GPS 3 satellite the company is building to validate the spacecraft’s design and verify production procedures. The GNST arrived in Littleton Dec. 11.

The entire GPS 3 acquisition strategy is designed to help the Air Force avoid some of the costly problems associated with previous satellite development programs. That back-to-basics approach is characterized by extensive, up-front systems engineering work to uncover problems long before construction begins on flight hardware.

The new strategy already is paying dividends, Jackson said. Lockheed Martin engineers working on the GNST have identified hardware and software integration issues. Those issues “were reasonably easy to resolve at this stage of the game,” Jackson said, adding that it would have been far more expensive and time-consuming to fix the problems if they were discovered when the first flight vehicle was being assembled.

Lockheed Martin employees who assembled GNST subsystems and now are building subsystems for the first flight unit also are noticing “significant reductions in the number of defects encountered and lower labor costs,” Jackson said. The core structure for the first flight vehicle is being mated with propulsion subsystems at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi before traveling to Littleton in the summer of 2012, Jackson said. That satellite is scheduled for launch in May 2014, Lockheed Martin spokesman Michael Friedman said.

Lockheed Martin officials plan to spend nearly a year completing GNST assembly and testing. The prototype spacecraft will be fitted with its primary navigation payload built by ITT Geospatial Systems of Rochester, N.Y., in addition to antennas, electrical panels and solar arrays. The prototype is then scheduled to undergo extensive testing before being shipped in late 2012 to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, where it will be used to verify launch processing procedures.

In an effort to reduce the overall cost of the GPS 3 program, Lockheed Martin is proposing launching two satellites at a time on United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets. Company representatives briefed senior Air Force officials in early December on the results of a study showing that the dual launch approach would be feasible and would provide “a significant reduction in the cost to orbit,” Jackson said.

In 2008, the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.5 billion contract to build GNST and the first two GPS 3 flight vehicles. Since then, the service has directed Lockheed Martin to procure long-lead items for the third and fourth flight vehicles. In all, the Air Force has spent approximately $1.7 billion on the GPS 3 research and development program, according to a report released Oct. 28 by the Congressional Budget Office, “The Global Positioning System for Military Users: Current Modernization Plans and Alternatives.”

Lockheed Martin officials said they anticipate a contract for production of the third and fourth GPS 3 flight vehicles by the end of 2011. The Air Force is expected to buy as many as 32 GPS 3 satellites in three successive blocks, each featuring additional capability. Overall, GPS 3 satellites are designed to offer significantly more accuracy than the current constellation of GPS spacecraft, allowing users to determine their position to within one meter, compared with slightly more than three meters with the existing signals. In addition, the new spacecraft will produce higher-power signals for military customers and a new civilian signal interoperable with other satellite navigation constellations, including Europe’s Galileo, Jackson said.

Even before the GNST arrived in Littleton, Lockheed Martin engineers tested manufacturing procedures for the new spacecraft in the company’s Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory, a virtual reality facility that opened Dec. 14 in Denver. Lockheed Martin workers used head-mounted displays to practice assembly and testing procedures in the virtual environment. That activity helped program managers eliminate redundant operations and streamline tasks, Jackson said.



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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...