Alejandro “Alex” Lopez
Vice President, Boeing Advanced Network and Space Systems
known for supplying
large satellites and rockets to
military and civil customers, but Alex Lopez is working
to diversify the company’s
offerings to include smaller, more-flexible satellites that can meet customer needs at less cost.
Lopez leads Boeing Advanced Network and Space Systems of
Huntington Beach, Calif., which
was created in 2006 as part of an effort to reach
new markets. Lopez
believes not pursuing innovation can put
out of business.
Among his division’s high-profile projects is
the U.S. Defense Department’s Orbital Express on-orbit
servicing experiment, which was launched in March, but Lopez
is not limiting his focus
to military contracts. Advanced Network and Space Systems is working on tiny satellites with its own research and development funds, and one such spacecraft,
TestBed 1, was launched
April 17 aboard a Russian-Ukrainian rocket. At the same time,
Lopez is not losing
of opportunities to work on traditional operational spacecraft programs: His division
is a key subcontractor to Northrop Grumman Corp. on the Space Radar effort.
Lopez spoke recently
with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.
Editor’s note: The day after this interview one of the Orbital Express spacecraft encountered a computer glitch that prompted the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to put further servicing operations on hold while they worked the problem. In answering a follow-up question May 18, Lopez said: “We expect challenges to occur during the execution of the demonstration scenarios. We have overcome some challenges to date and expect more challenges as the mission scenarios grow in complexity. Regardless of what happens next, Orbital Express has already demonstrated the feasibility of autonomous rendezvous proximity operations and on-orbit servicing.”
Does Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) mean making traditionally large military satellites more responsive or does it necessarily involve small spacecraft that can be launched quickly and inexpensively?
As far as making standard satellites more responsive, our division would focus on providing ideas to other divisions that are developing the military’s next generation of space systems.
Our division would focus primarily on the other part – smaller satellites. There are a variety of reasons that they will be attractive, such as lower cost and faster cycle time. Small satellites may be more difficult for enemies to target, and can be used to replenish capabilities that have been disrupted or destroyed.
you facing cultural resistance within the company to the pursuit of this market?
I don’t think so. Like any company, we make business-case decisions. The advanced systems division reports directly to
Jim Albaugh, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, precisely so that Boeing does not get caught in the innovator’s dilemma that other companies can suffer from – the dilemma that companies face in supporting innovations that are key for growth into new markets because of their natural bias to focus on their current, most-profitable customers or markets.
What ORS opportunities are you pursuing?
The government is beginning to invest some. Not a lot. The relative level of investment may be nickels compared to the overall Pentagon budget, but it at least sends the signal that this is important to them.
However, I don’t think that the ORS vision will happen through government funding alone. At least initially, I think this is going to happen through companies building systems on their own initiative, like the commercial work on low-cost launch vehicles.
The government got the ORS effort kick-started with the TacSats, but there isn’t enough happening in the area of innovative thinking on how to deliver valuable capability in small satellites, and we’re focusing on that.
Can you cite some examples?
We built and launched a nano-satellite in April. We have a lab with relationships with universities and are intent on leveraging those relationships to grow our capabilities in this area to deliver nano-satellites that provide substantial capability as opposed to just a curiosity. The April launch also included two satellites built by a university as part of that relationship. One nano-satellite is focused on testing components in the space environment, while the other two have some sensing capabilities.
The Orbital Express mission is scheduled to end in June. Has anyone expressed interest in extending the mission?
NASA is interested because Orbital Express could help them retrieve samples. Orbital Express has the capability to autonomously rendezvous and mate that they are looking for. NASA is interested in funding an extension, as are some customers within the Air Force.
What would the Air Force do with it?
Orbital Express could help with demonstrations of how to perform proximity operations for space situational awareness and take pictures of satellites or space debris. It could take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to design an experiment like this, but Orbital Express offers a capability in place to do a close fly-by and other things I cannot discuss.
However, they would need to find money in the current-year budget to fund an extension, which may be challenging.
Do you expect to build an operational system based on Orbital Express?
Yes. The ability to refuel satellites to extend their lifetime will be very attractive, as many satellites are decommissioned not because their hardware does not work, but because they run out of propellant to keep them in the proper position.
The ability to replace batteries will also be attractive, because of the problem with batteries dying, especially on low Earth orbiting satellites that are not constantly exposed to the sun for their solar arrays to absorb solar energy. The ability to replace batteries through a system like Orbital Express could help reduce the size requirements for batteries, which can be very heavy.
A system like Orbital Express could also replace and upgrade computer hardware on a spacecraft. While software upgrades are possible today, they are limited by the processing power of the spacecraft.
Has the Pentagon indicated to you that it is prepared to start designing
satellites that can be serviced on orbit?
Not yet. Until we launched Orbital Express and demonstrated that it worked, people were like “we’ll see.” Now that we have done that, people say “oh, it’s for real.”
How difficult is it to design such satellites?
You need to design the spacecraft so that it has boxes for various components or batteries that can be plugged from the exterior of the satellite, and protect them from radiation, as well as a very simple interface for the servicing satellite to grapple. It’s not much more complicated than designing automobiles with a gas tank that has a hole for a pump’s nozzle.
How does your business break down between military and civil markets?
It’s substantially military, with customers like the Air Force Research Laboratory, Naval Research Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. I don’t have any commercial business today.
In the future, I would expect to increase the level of business that we do today with NASA that includes thermal protection systems for NASA’s Ames Research Center, and begin to add commercial business as well.
Do you believe the
Pentagon and intelligence community are committed to
the Space Radar
While the system has its advocates and detractors, I think that the congressional testimony earlier this year from Don Kerr, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office; Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command; and Ron Sega, the undersecretary of the Air Force, signals that Space Radar is going to go forward.
Everyone knows that for it to happen, we need to find an affordable approach. We’re working as a teammate to Northrop Grumman to pursue the contract, which is expected to be awarded in 2009, so there is time to work on the architectural issues.