As Boeing Co.’s point man for most U.S. Air Force satellite systems, John Fuller already oversees a large and productive portfolio, but even bigger plums lay on the horizon.
The major unclassified programs on Fuller’s plate today include the Wideband Gapfiller communications system, the GPS 2F navigation satellites and the Space Based Space Surveillance System, which is designed to keep tabs on objects in Earth orbit. The Air Force recently exercised an option for three more GPS 2F satellites, bringing the total under contract to nine, and is likely to order at least three more. The service also has money in its 2006 budget request to start buying components for two Wideband Gapfiller satellites in addition to the three nearing completion at Boeing Satellite Systems in El Segundo, Calif.
The future holds more lucrative, if less certain, possibilities. Boeing is leading one of two teams competing to build the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications system and is the space segment provider on the Northrop Grumman-led team vying for the Space Radar prime contract. Both programs represent billions of dollars in potential revenues, but also are seen as prime targets for congressional budget hawks this session.
Fuller joined a unit of Rockwell Collins that was later bought by Boeing in 1991after a 27-year Air Force career during which he flew aircraft ranging from the B-52 to the SR-71 spy plane. While piloting the SR-71, he earned a place in the pantheon of aviation achievement by sharing the world speed record over a 1,000-kilometer course.
Fuller, who is based in Huntington Beach, Calif., spoke recently with Space News editor Lon Rains and staff writer Jeremy Singer.
Do you foresee the federal budget squeeze forcing the Pentagon to substantially delay or even cancel some of its so-called transformational space programs?
It’s really unclear to me what’s going to happen. We’re really hopeful that the T-Sat program will remain intact, because we see it as so fundamental to transformation itself. It’s a key enabler for transformation programs like the Army’s Future Combat System.
We’re hopeful that Space Radar survives in the budget as well, but I can’t predict what’s going to happen given the environment that we’re seeing today. But I don’t see the nation walking away from transformational space programs.
Do you think the Pentagon can sustain Space Radar and T-Sat regardless of whether Donald Rumsfeld continues to serve as defense secretary?
I do. I think that all of the services are committed to transformation, whether it’s the Army and the Future Combat System, which needs T-Sat, or the Air Force and systems like Space Radar and aerial reconnaissance vehicles that will depend on T-Sat as well. My sense is that these programs will continue because the nation and the Pentagon are committed to transformation.
What is your response to those who point to cost growth and delays on established programs as evidence that the military needs to get its house in order before taking on ambitious new projects like T-Sat and Space Radar?
I guess I’d have to say that in the wake of the Defense Science Board study on space acquisition programs led by Tom Young, there is a recognition that space is different; that the Pentagon and its contractors need to focus more on the front-end work and a shared partnering approach in accepting risk and investing in risk reduction so you don’t end up in a situation where a program is out of control.
I think the Pentagon now knows this and has structured programs like T-Sat the right way to deliver the capability as promised.
The Air Force has pushed back its GPS 3 acquisition schedule several times. Would you like to see them move faster on GPS 3 or are the delays advantageous to Boeing as the prime contractor on GPS 2F, the predecessor system?
There is certainly room to enhance the capabilities on GPS 2F, but we’re not in a position to dictate to the Pentagon which way they should go. Whether it’s GPS 3 or additional GPS 2F satellites, we’re going to work with the Air Force any way we can.
Is there any word on when the Air Force will select a prime contractor for GPS 3?
Given the uncertainty in the budget, it’s really hard to predict. There are a variety of different options that we’re not really privy to . I think there are some senior-level reviews going on at the Pentagon on the future of GPS 3 that may extend into the next month.
Is there any update on the Air Force’s plans, if any, for an operational space-monitoring constellation based on the initial Space Based Space Surveillance satellite?
The intent is to begin a competition for that follow-on constellation around the same time that the first satellite launches, which is currently scheduled for 2008.
Is Boeing interested in building the Air Force’s Orbital Deep Space Imager, which would monitor objects in higher orbits than the Space Based Space Surveillance system will?
Yes. There is discussion right now on extending the study phase for that program. I’m speculating on the Air Force rationale for stretching it out, but I think it gets back to the goals of the Air Force space acquisition strategy that was updated in 2003.
You want to carry competition to the point where requirements are fully in place and all the documentation is in place to do an acquisition program. If the study phase moves too quickly, you may not have everything in place to do that, but again I’m speculating.
Do you anticipate working on space control programs outside of the situational awareness realm — systems that could disrupt or destroy enemy satellites, for example?
I’m not working on anything like that, and I doubt that if I were I could say anything about it. I think the focus is on space situational awareness to understand the space environment.
Do you anticipate that tiny satellites will become a significant part of your future business?
Yes. There is a lot of utility for those satellites in the case of quickly replenishing or augmenting existing constellations.
How about near-space vehicles?
Boeing is interested in those platforms, but they’re not in my portfolio. I think there is a lot of benefit to integrating airborne systems with satellites like Space Radar.