Dave Kaufman. Credit: Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.

Profile | Dave Kaufman

  Vice President and General Manager for National Defense

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.

Poised for Shifting Winds

Tight budgets and an evolving threat environment have the U.S. Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office looking at alternative space architectures and contracting schemes.

The Air Force is conducting analyses of alternatives for nearly all of its major space capabilities, which today are typically carried aboard large, multimission satellites. As part of this activity, the service is exploring concepts like disaggregation, in which sensor and other capabilities would be dispersed among a wider variety of platforms.

The NRO, which is known for building extremely complex spacecraft under contracts where the government assumes most of the risk, has been more open in recent years to innovative mission concepts and fixed-price contracts, industry officials say.

These trends play to the strengths of Boulder, Colorado-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., according to Dave Kaufman, who took over the company’s defense and intelligence space hardware business in August.

A technician works on STPSat-3 Credit: Ball Aerospace
A technician works on STPSat-3 Credit: Ball Aerospace

Ball specializes in building medium-sized satellites and instruments for a variety of mostly U.S. government customers. The company has seen its intelligence business increase in recent years, and has high hopes for a family of modular satellites developed under the Air Force’s Space Test Program-Standard Interface Vehicle program, which Kaufman managed in a previous position. The Ball-built STPSat-2 and STPSat-3 satellites launched in 2010 and 2013, respectively.

The company is also angling for a role in the Air Force’s planned Weather Satellite Follow-on program by leveraging a spare instrument that it built for the U.S.-Japanese Global Precipitation Measurement mission.

Kaufman spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.

What role or roles might Ball play in the Air Force’s Weather Satellite Follow-on Program?

We were involved in the risk reduction studies that the Air Force funded the last couple of years. Our particular focus was on two of the main requirements the Air Force has identified: ocean surface vector winds and tropical cyclone intensity. We focused our risk reduction study on the Ball-built GMI [Global Precipitation Measurement-Microwave Imager] sensor that launched in January for NASA.

What did you find out in that study?

The data the Air Force is using for ocean surface vector winds and tropical cyclone intensity comes from NASA’s Windsat vehicle that is well beyond its design life. There’s a high potential for gap in that data. We’ve come up with a way to fill that gap using a spare GMI that NASA purchased. With some modification, we’re able to collect those two key data items for the Air Force. Our work with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has dealt with modifying the hardware to take over when Windsat fails. NASA could get their data, the Air Force could get their parameters and we need to find a ride for it.

Are you interested in building the satellite platform for the Weather Satellite Follow-on system?

Right now we’re mostly interested in the sensors. It really depends on the acquisition strategy the Air Force goes with.

Ball has a lot of work with the intelligence community. How has the NRO changed its buying practices in recent years?

We have seen a move toward doing things differently in the intelligence community. We’ve been big proponents of having modular architectures and commonality and capability-based programs. We’re seeing the intel community move that way as well. There’s definitely an interest in fixed-price contracting and in providing more opportunities for competition. How are you going to put the pieces together? How are you going to interact with your contractors and your suppliers? They are looking to things like associate contractor agreements.

What are associate contractor agreements?

Use something like the Joint Polar Satellite System as an example. We were associate contractors with most of the payload providers. We did the spacecraft, we built one of the instruments and the other instruments’ builders were not our subcontractors; they were our associate contractors. That is a model the intel community is interested in and we think we can make work really well. Think about the prime/sub role. The prime contractor flows down all the requirements and then verifies them. With an associate contractor, there would be peer contractors responsible for different parts of the mission and all the requirements don’t flow from one to the other.

Are you having similar conversations with the Air Force?

A lot of our conversations with the Air Force are about affordability. How can we bring more commercial practices into a government mission? How do you use standard interfaces? How do you use a modular bus and a modular payload and put those together to achieve a mission? That’s what we’ve been talking about and I think we have a pretty receptive audience. They see that as a way to get more affordable systems, leverage previous systems and just change what we need to. You don’t start with the pie in the sky to do that.

So have the Air Force and intel community adopted the same mindset in this regard?

I think they’re on parallel paths. They have the same goals and they’re working through it somewhat independently, and we’re bringing the same message to both.

Ball built the satellite platform for the Air Force’s Space Based Space Surveillance system now on orbit. Will Ball be interested in building the follow-on system, which has been described so far as consisting of three smaller satellites?

The way the Air Force is going for the follow-on is focused purely on geostationary orbit. Their three-satellite constellation is definitely one way to solve that. We’ve been involved in discussions and we want to continue to be involved in industry days moving forward, and I think we have things to offer there. Of course we were the space segment lead on the current satellite and I think we have some expertise we can contribute. There’s more in the trade that the Air Force is doing now that we’re very interested in.

Could Ball deliver the smaller satellites the Air Force is considering?

GPIM artist's concept. Credit: Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.
GPIM artist’s concept. Credit: Ball Aerospace
GPIM artist’s concept. Credit: Ball Aerospace

Absolutely. We have experience with smaller satellites. STPSat-2 and -3 were our vehicles and they were about 100 kilograms apiece. Right now we’re building the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) for NASA. So right there that’s three in a program line of about 100 kilograms or less.

What was the takeaway for Ball from the STPSat-2 and -3 missions?

That was a good program for us in the fact that it’s now a real program line of three satellites. That standard interface is really important. At that small scale, we were able to come up with a very standardized interface for the payload. We published the interface document so the payload designers could design to it. That really worked well. We have the very same bus design for STPSat-2 and -3 and then we’re carrying that to GPIM. That product of small spacecraft is something we can leverage for other small missions. The Air Force’s Hosted Payload Solutions contract used that interface document as a template for creating their interface for hosted payloads.

Ball had a small contract for missile warning sensor work. Do you have any prospects in that arena?

The Air Force is doing an analysis of alternatives. We did respond to the request for information with some of our ideas. We’re waiting for the Air Force to go through that analysis of alternatives and identify what the next-generation Space Based Infrared System really looks like. We don’t have any current activity.

What in your view are the key questions that still need to be answered about disaggregation?

We have, as a midsized spacecraft provider, some things to offer if disaggregation is something the Air Force decides it wants to do. Disaggregation is certainly a tool that can be used to achieve resiliency but I’m not sure the Air Force has come to the conclusion that that’s the way it wants to go. We certainly understand that needs to be looked at carefully.

Ball was the prime on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Membrane Optic Imager Real-time Exploitation project, which the agency said could lead to the largest optical telescope ever deployed in space. What’s the latest on that project?

The work for DARPA is completed and we are still looking for a transition partner. What that program has done is shown us the opportunities for large apertures. We’ve got some good test data. We’ve got some ideas in the civil and defense communities that could potentially meet some major needs so we just continue to offer those up. We have had interest. Certainly the idea of large apertures has a lot of potential.


Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.