Profile: Riding a Rising Tide For Small Satellites

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Profile: Patricia Davis

AeroAstro Executive VP and General Manager for Space

For Patricia Davis, the planned October launch of the Pentagon’s Orbital Express in-orbit servicing experiment looms large, in part because one of five secondary payloads to be carried aloft by the Atlas 5 launcher is the Air Force’s STPSat-1, the first satellite built by her company in several years.

Perhaps even more importantly from a business standpoint, the launch marks the long-awaited debut of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Secondary Payload Adapter, or ESPA, an aluminum ring designed to accommodate up to six piggyback payloads on Air Force launches. If successful, the mission could lead to regular flights of the ESPA ring, and thus more flight opportunities for the type of small satellites that AeroAstro builds. For example, the company is on a team led by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. that recently won an Air Force contract to build up to six Standard Interface Vehicles — flexible host platforms for experimental payloads that would launch on the ESPA ring.

Rick Fleeter, AeroAstro’s founder, president and chief executive officer, lives in Boston these days and spends much of his time teaching engineering at Brown University in Rhode Island. That leaves much of the day-to-day responsibility for running the company to Davis.

AeroAstro employs 70 people today and Davis said the company plans to hire about a dozen more by year’s end. Sales have more than doubled since 2001, topping $11.8 million in 2005.

Davis, a 20-year industry veteran, spoke recently with Space News staff writer Brian Berger.

What is the outlook for flying secondary payloads on EELVs?

While manifesting secondary payloads on EELVs is not yet broadly accepted, the message we are getting is that we are going to see the ESPA ring manifested on more Air Force missions. Originally there was resistance — not just from the launch service providers concerned about any change in configuration, but from the primary payload owners not quite sure they want a ring of little vehicles sitting underneath. That’s understandable given the importance of these missions. But there has been a process over the last three or four years that has helped the ESPA ring gain wider acceptance.

Has AeroAstro been a player in the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space arena?

We’ve been involved in a lot of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space-Plug-and-Play-Avionics work, actively participated in their workshops, and are developing and testing sensor and radio components to prove their compatibility with a spacecraft architecture the lab has been developing. At a system level, our SMARTBus modular spacecraft design explicitly incorporates components with the Space-Plug-and-Play-Avionics interface.  We are also one of about a dozen companies participating in the so-called Integrated Systems Engineering Team being run by the Naval Research Laboratory and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory to develop technological standards for the next generation of TacsSats and help evaluate whether the business case for Operationally Responsive Space holds water.

Might that lead to some sort of TacSat production contract?

We hear that the government will at some point buy as many as five such vehicles per year, so the question becomes whether that is sufficient to yield any economies of scale in production, especially if the buy is distributed among multiple contractors. We also understand that the Air Force needs to demonstrate the hardware they’ve already got by launching and operating TacSats-1 and -2 before any sort of production is approved, so procurements may not start until the 2010 timeframe. That’s a pretty long way off in the microspace world.

Industry has expressed concern that the next TacSat – TacSat-4 – is actually going to be built in-house at the Naval Research Laboratory and perhaps some part of it at the Applied Physics Laboratory, with support from industry. AeroAstro and others have spent a lot of time helping the government define these standards and evaluate the TacSat business case, but with the government’s procurement plan not really clear at this point, we are not quite sure we are seeing a full path ahead that makes it worth our while.

TacSat aside, do you foresee significant opportunities to build small satellites for the Pentagon?

We are heartened by comments made by Air Force Undersecretary Ron Sega and the commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, about the need for the big operational programs to do more risk reduction and do it sooner to avoid the overruns and schedule slips we are seeing. We are hopeful there may be more opportunities to fly small satellites directly for customers like the Space and Missile Systems Center as a way to buy down risk early in the development of big operational missions.

What opportunities do you see at NASA?

For a smaller company, it is a struggle to find a place in NASA’s lunar exploration plans. That kind of activity classically has been the terrain of the larger aerospace companies. So we were pleased to see a small satellite advocate like Pete Worden take over the Ames Research Center. We were also pleasantly surprised when earlier this year, NASA put out a call for secondary payload proposals for the 2008 Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission. While none of the NASA field center-led bids we supported were among the finalists, we were very encouraged by this development.

Is AeroAstro still pursuing international opportunities?

Yes, but it is less of a focus than it was five years ago.

Why is that?

It’s a combination of U.S. export control regulations, the cost of pursuing international business and the time it takes for some of these international programs to mature. Not that the U.S. is that much better. But our international focus had been on enabling developing nations with very limited budgets to procure and operate their own spacecraft missions. What we found, however, is that when you are working with those kinds of customers, you are not competing against other companies offering similar spacecraft. You are competing with other national priorities like building dams and installing cell phone infrastructure. In many cases, the advanced space technology stuff just didn’t make the cut.

Do you see much opportunity among universities?

It’s definitely tight right now. Most of what we are doing with universities today is technology development.

When did AeroAstro’s focus shift from science to Defense Department missions?

AeroAstro still believes very strongly in maintaining ties to the university community. But our higher-dollar-value missions certainly are defense related. We changed focus in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Part of that was a sea change at the Defense Department where there was more of an embracing of smaller satellites to accomplish more important missions. We were able to convince defense customers that the technologies we developed for the university missions were applicable and were not so high-risk that they were infeasible.

What new business areas are you exploring?

Launch vehicle development is something we are starting to look at in the context of our strong interest in low-cost access to space. We’re not looking at major launch vehicle developments or being a competitor to SpaceX. But we are starting to look at some very small launch vehicle development opportunities with companies like Up Aerospace. Our interest is driven by a desire to demonstrate, at a very low cost, some of the technologies we’ve developed. If we wanted, for example, to fly a star tracker we’ve developed to get a couple hours of data, it’s almost impossible to find a flight opportunity. So that is part of it. We also see a commercial market for these very small launch vehicles. I don’t want to say much more but it is definitely an area that has caught our attention.