A year ago Orbital Sciences Corp. closed its purchase of the satellite manufacturing business of General Dynamics Corp., a move Orbital officials said would open up new opportunities in the realm of medium-sized satellites, particularly for government customers. But the first major contract for which Orbital will utilize the newly acquired factory space in Gilbert, Ariz., is a commercial program: final assembly, integration and testing of 66 Iridium Next communications satellites.
Mike Hamel, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general who does big-picture planning for Orbital, still sees plenty of opportunities on the U.S. government side, but acknowledges that some of these have been deferred due to the nation’s fiscal situation. He’s also bullish on new business approaches that leverage Orbital’s commercial capabilities as well as its Taurus 2 medium-class launcher, being developed to deliver the company’s Cygnus logistics module to the international space station.
Specifically, Orbital is looking for opportunities to host government payloads aboard commercial craft, including Cygnus after it delivers its cargo to the space station, as well to offer delivery-on-orbit deals that package the medium-class satellites and Taurus 2 rockets.
Hamel spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.
Are you as bullish about the opportunities opened up by the General Dynamics acquisition as you were a year ago?
There are a number of defense and intelligence programs that we have been tracking very closely. It is open to question whether or not in the current budgetary environment some of those will go forward, but we’re very upbeat that the customer relations that our Gilbert facility developed both in the defense and the intelligence markets are going to serve us well to compete for whatever may come.
Have any prospective programs flat-out disappeared?
What tends to happen is they get stretched out, delayed. One program we’ve been very interested in is the Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) program. We had a role in the Missile Defense Agency’s Space Tracking and Surveillance System Advanced Technology Risk Reduction satellite that’s gone through initial on-orbit testing and is now providing supporting data to the space situational awareness mission area. The question is what is going to be the follow-on SBSS program. We think we’ve got some capable offerings and contributions for the Department of Defense but that appears now to have been pushed out some.
Everybody has concerns about the current fiscal environment and what that means for the industry. What are some of your specific concerns?
As we have tighter budget times it’s imperative to preserve programs of record. The question becomes whether there are going to be sufficient resources to invest in new capabilities. That is very much a concern to us, whether some of these new opportunities are actually going to reach fruition or whether or not we’re going to see that the funds simply are not going to be there to pursue new approaches.
Can you give me some examples?
There’s a lot of interest in the idea of leveraging the commercial space sector with hosted payloads. The problem is you can’t find a budget line right now; you don’t see a program that is really moving forward for doing that.
Orbital is paying Iridium for the right to market hosted payload capacity on the Iridium Next satellites. How is that going so far?
I think the conclusion has been that there’s no single government mission or application that’s likely to consume all the available hosted payload space across the constellation. So we’re looking at the mix of capabilities that bring the best value to both the government customers as well as to the Iridium team. We’re in the early phases. Everybody is convinced that there’s a real opportunity here, but in terms of programmatic and financial and engineering solutions we still have more work to do to see whether or not that’s going to close.
How could Cygnus be used to host government payloads?
This is going to be a routine flight opportunity, and after delivery of cargo to the space station Cygnus will have a full on-orbit life with weight capacity and power available to support hosted payloads. There’s a service module that actually has all the brains — it’s basically the power system, the avionics, the autonomous rendezvous capability — so on the front of that is where the actual cargo module is with the air lock and hatch and the rest. After it delivers the cargo to the station, it’s got a design life of over a year so it could be routinely used and we’re even now seeing solicitations or expressions of interest from the Defense Department for hosted payloads for such things as the Space Test Program.
Congress has yet to sign off on the White House’s plan to buy two large optical imaging satellites from Lockheed Martin for intelligence gathering. Is there an opportunity there for Orbital?
We certainly recognize and respect the analysis that was done but there still is a large body of sentiment for the 80 percent solution that is more affordable and has a shorter delivery time. We’ve had some involvement in the commercial imagery side of the business and we have a conviction that you really can get 80 percent solutions on a much more affordable basis as well as on shorter cycle time.
Do you have any indication that the U.S. Missile Defense Agency is serious about pursuing the Precision Tracking Space System for missile tracking?
It’s very uncertain. The first step is the demonstrator effort that the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory will perform and then the question will be, is that actually going to lead into an operational system? I think it’s very unclear right now, and quite frankly it’s not going to happen until at least 2018 or 2020, so it’s beyond the current five-year defense program.
Are NASA programs slipping into the out-years as well?
NASA and the administration are very intent about investing in the commercial crew transportation vehicles. It’s a little less clear for Earth and space science programs. Some programs we thought would be on the near-term horizon may actually be deferred.
How is Orbital being affected by the uncertainty surrounding the human spaceflight program?
I think there are going to be questions relative to the crew piece — we are playing in that and would like to be competitive — but certainly on the cargo side, sustaining the space station, there’s going to be a real imperative to do that and we’re one of the two commercial operators that are going to be able to do that within the U.S., so we think the outlook is very positive.
The impending retirement of the space shuttle and uncertainty over what comes next has driven up propulsion prices. Is Orbital feeling that?
We’re starting to see it in pricing on things like solid-rocket motors that we use for virtually all of our target vehicles and launch systems. We also have a keen interest in what the future of liquid rocket engine investment is. Our Taurus 2 launch vehicle uses the AJ-26 liquid rocket engine and there’s a limited supply. We are very much interested in where the nation is going relative to liquid rocket engine technology because ultimately we are looking for what would be the next-generation liquid rocket engine for our Taurus 2.
The current AJ-26 inventory will take a long time to exhaust, no?
It could, but our other aspiration is for the Taurus 2 not just simply to be for commercial resupply to the station. We also view it as a successor to the Delta 2. We really believe there’s a need across the civil as well as the national security space community for that class of launch system. So we’re hopeful that we’ll actually ramp up the rate of sales and use of the Taurus 2 in future years as it comes on line.
Is Taurus 2 still on schedule to debut this summer?
Some of this is going to depend upon NASA’s desires and scheduling, but we’re still very much focused on a late-summertime first launch of the Taurus 2.
Can you give me an example of how Orbital might leverage its newly acquired capabilities in medium-class satellites together with the Taurus 2?
General Dynamics had a product line that is the basis for the Landsat Data Continuity Mission satellite that is now undergoing assembly and integration and test. We think that bus is the foundation for future spacecraft that could address defense and intelligence opportunities. So we’re trying to size this class of vehicle such that we can offer it with Taurus 2 launchers at a much more affordable price than an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle.
Are there any active procurements in which your company is offering to deliver the satellite on orbit?
We have made proposals; we’re waiting to hear whether those government programs are going to go forward. I can’t really speak more about that. It’s on the national security side. We think there’s some real compelling value there to hold industry accountable all the way up through the delivery on orbit.
Doesn’t the fact that Taurus 2 will launch out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, which is best suited to medium-inclination orbits, limit its appeal?
Part of what we’re exploring is how we can expand the flight envelope from Wallops Island to be able to address a broader range of orbits. Obviously two classes that are very important are the geostationary orbits and polar orbits but there are a lot of high-inclination orbits and other critically inclined orbits that would be accessible from Wallops Island pretty directly.