Lockheed’s Challenge: Retaining Engineers After Major Projects

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — As Lockheed Martin Space Systems completes development and testing of three major military communications satellites, company officials are looking for ways to retain the highly skilled engineers who designed and developed those spacecraft.

“By and large, we are on the backside of these major developments,” said Joanne Maguire, executive vice president of Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “We are also in an era of extraordinary fiscal constraint. That places some challenges on us.” Lockheed Martin Space Systems engineers are conducting final testing of the first dedicated Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellites for the U.S. Air Force, which plans to launch the first of four planned geosynchronous spacecraft April 30. The company’s Sunnyvale, Calif.-based operation also is conducting environmental testing of the first test vehicle for the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), an ultra-high-frequency satellite communications system slated for launch next spring. In addition, Lockheed Martin has completed testing of the Air Force’s second Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) secure communications satellite, which is scheduled for launch in 2011.

In the wake of those launches, the company will continue producing spacecraft. Lockheed Martin has contracts to build three AEHF satellites, four MUOS, two SBIRS spacecraft and two SBIRS payloads carried by other satellites in highly elliptical orbits. “Additionally, the team is now working on the third and fourth [highly elliptical orbit satellite] payloads and the third and fourth geostationary spacecraft for the SBIRS constellation,” Lockheed spokesman Steve Tatum wrote in an e-mail.

While those production programs move forward, company officials are seeking ways “to engage and retain the best engineering talent as we make this transition from a heavy emphasis on development work to recurring production,” Maguire said Nov. 1 during an interview at MILCOM 2010, a military communications conference here.

“We have had this tremendous benefit of all these programs going through development,” she said. “We have built up some extraordinary engineering capabilities. It would be a travesty to let that capability atrophy.”

Significant development work will continue at Lockheed Martin, including efforts to create the next-generation  GPS-3 navigation satellites for the U.S. Air Force as well as the Orion crew capsule, an element of NASA’s Constellation space exploration program, which the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama initially proposed canceling in its 2011 budget, then resurrected in a scaled-back version to serve as a crew lifeboat for the international space station.

The three-year NASA Authorization Act includes plans for $1.1 billion in 2011 funding on a crew capsule designed for deep space missions, but does not mention Orion specifically. An appropriations bill, which provides the funding, has not yet been approved. In the meantime, NASA is operating under a continuing resolution that pays for ongoing programs at levels that do not exceed 2010 budgets.

Even before appropriators agree on a new spending plan, Lockheed Martin is continuing to build and test Orion components. “We continue to operate under a continuing resolution that will allow us to make solid progress [on Orion],” Maguire said.

In the military space arena, Lockheed Martin engineers are testing flight software that has delayed completion of the first dedicated SBIRS spacecraft. Two SBIRS payloads have proven their capability to serve missile warning and missile defense missions while operating on host satellites in highly elliptical orbits, Maguire said. Now, company officials are optimistic that the software issues have been resolved, she added.

“We are doing the final verification testing of that software, which is challenging because there is a lot of it to test,” she said. “We are making steady progress. The Air Force has set a firm launch date of April 30, 2011.”

The first U.S. Navy MUOS satellite, which will be part of a constellation designed to offer narrowband satellite communications to fixed and mobile terminals, is about to undergo thermal vacuum testing, Maguire said. That spacecraft is scheduled for delivery in mid-2011 and launch during the third quarter of that year, Tatum said.

The Air Force launched the first satellite in the AEHF constellation Aug. 14, but a propulsion problem prevented that satellite from reaching its intended orbit. The Air Force is using on-board thrusters to move the satellite into its proper orbit. The second AEHF satellite is scheduled for launch next year.

While both SBIRS and MUOS presented significant technical challenges, Maguire said government and industry officials are making progress in improving their management of military satellite programs. The current era of budget pressures coupled with the launch of sophisticated, new spacecraft constellations makes it unlikely that these types of ambitious development efforts will be replicated anytime soon, she said.

“I can’t tell whether it will be five years or 10 years, but the question will be, ‘How can I squeeze all the value out of these big investments by making incremental improvements on the ground and on the platform as well?’” Maguire said. “These systems are so capable it’s probably wise not to start up the next [program] until we understand all the intrinsic capabilities of these systems.”

One way military customers could find money to pay for those incremental improvements would be to buy more than one satellite at a time. “A big part of the inefficiency in these acquisitions has to do with stops and starts,” Maguire said. “So there is a move afoot to look at whether we can do multiyear funding, multiyear acquisitions, buy in blocks of two satellites or three.”

Although Maguire acknowledged that multiyear funding has been proposed in the past and rejected by some in Congress, she said the concept is being taken seriously due to federal budget constraints. “If we don’t do this we are going to have to choose not to do some of these missions or to do them so inefficiently that we build one satellite once every four or five years, which is the same as starting all over again because the electronic components become obsolete.”