WASHINGTON — Vanguard Space Technologies notched a significant win in May with a subcontract from Lockheed Martin Space Systems to supply the core spacecraft structures, or buses, for a pair of supersecure U.S. military communications satellites.

The multimillion-dollar subcontract on the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite program continued a recent run of success for the 17-year-old firm, which specializes in composite spacecraft structures.

Although San Diego-based Vanguard has built dozens of spacecraft parts for Lockheed Martin over the last several years, it only recently shipped its first full spacecraft core structures to the aerospace giant, which will use them to build two Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellites. It also marked a victory over rival ATK Space Components Division, which built the core structures for the first four AEHF craft just down the street in San Diego.

Vanguard Space Technologies at a Glance

Business Focus: Engineering, fabircation and testing of high-performance composite structures for space.
Product Lines: Antennas, reflectors, spacecraft bus structures, solar array substrates, dimensionally stable optical benches and multifunctional composite structures.
Top Official: Frank Belknap, chief executive
Established: 1994
San Diego
Personnel: 150

Steve Tatum, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Sunnyvale, Calif., said the decision to switch AEHF bus vendors was based at least partly on price. “When we considered cost, schedule and technical factors, they were clearly the best value,” Tatum said.

With long-lead materials ordered and fabrication getting under way, Vanguard expects to deliver the AEHF-5 bus in August 2013 and the AEHF-6 bus the following December. Meanwhile, the core structures for the third and fourth SBIRS satellites — ordered by SBIRS prime contractor Lockheed Martin in December 2008 — are at Lockheed Martin Space & Technology Center in Mississippi, where the main propulsion systems will be attached. The satellites are scheduled for launch availability in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Vanguard officials said the company’s contract backlog has allowed it to invest in additional manufacturing capacity, including a 3.6-meter-diameter autoclave to cure larger composite structures than its current 3-meter autoclave.

Duane Krumweide, Vanguard business development manager, said the AEHF bus structures will be the largest the company has built for any customer.

Incorporated in 1995 as a subsidiary of DR Technologies, Vanguard got its start doing missile defense work. It was a natural fit given the background of DR Technologies’ founder, aerospace engineer Lyle Dunbar, who worked on missile defense programs at the old TRW and SAIC before beginning a 12-year stint as senior vice president and director at defense contractor SPARTA Inc.

Under Dunbar, Vanguard Composites Group, as it was called then, gradually shifted its focus from missile defense to spacecraft technology, winning its first bus contract in October 2001 from Orbital Sciences Corp. Dulles, Va.-based Orbital tapped Vanguard to build the bus for BSAT-2C, a 1,300-kilogram communications satellite ordered by Japan’s Broadcasting Satellite System Corp. after a July 2001 launch mishap left BSAT-2B stranded in a useless orbit.

Dunbar sold DR Technologies to Los Angeles-based private equity firm Nogales Investors in early 2009 for an undisclosed sum. The following year, DR Technologies changed its name to Vanguard Space Technologies Inc.

Orbital remains Vanguard’s largest customer, buying several complete bus structures and scores of other components, including instrument bulkheads and antenna reflectors.

“Most of our reflector business comes through Orbital Sciences in Virginia,” Krumweide said. “They’re probably our biggest customer and have been over the years. That’s slowly getting equalized now with Lockheed Martin.”

Winning the initial orders for the composite core structures for Lockheed Martin’s A2100 satellite platform was not easy, Krumweide said. “We worked our way up with smaller structures” including struts, tubes, booms and masts for programs including SBIRS and AEHF, he said.

“We had to build enough hardware for them, to the tune of 60 programs, that they gained a lot of confidence,” Krumweide said.

Frank Belknap, a composites industry veteran and Vanguard’s chief executive since 2010, said he expects sales to increase by 15 percent annually for the next three years. His goal is to boost Vanguard’s share of the composite space structures market to 50 percent, up from the 6 or 7 percent the company claims today.

Vanguard faces stiff competition. In addition to ATK, which in 2003 bought Belknap’s former employer, Composite Optics, three other California firms dominate the business: Applied Aerospace Structures Corp. in Stockton, MDA Information Systems in Pasadena, and Canyon Composites in Anaheim.

ATK, which currently employs 280 people at its Space Components Division, does not seem overly concerned about losing business to Vanguard.

“This business has actually grown 45 percent since ATK bought it in 2003,” ATK spokesman George Torres said July 17. “We delivered 12 buses in the last 18 months and we’ve actually won three new commercial programs from Lockheed Martin since the AEHF loss.

“Surely we are disappointed about that loss, but this has been a very strong business,” Torres said.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...