Profile: Michael D. Pavich

Director, Space Dynamics Laboratory

The Space Dynamics Laboratory took a significant blow in 2004 when the Pentagon abruptly canceled the Russian American Observation Satellite (RAMOS), an experimental missile-warning project, but new opportunities are on the horizon.

Michael Pavich, a retired U.S. Air Force major general who became the lab’s director in June 2003, notes the Pentagon’s interest in small satellites that can be launched on short notice in response to emerging tactical needs as well as in so-called near-space vehicles, which would operate at altitudes of around 20,000 meters. The lab could become a major player in these areas, he said.

Established in 1982, the Space Dynamics Laboratory is a nonprofit corporation owned by Utah State University that serves as the Defense Department’s university-affiliated research center for satellite sensors and related technology. NASA is the lab’s other big customer, and currently accounts for over 50 percent of annual revenue.

The Space Dynamics Laboratory also is known for its role in organizing and hosting an annual conference on small satellites that has seen steady growth in attendance in recent years, as well as a conference on spacecraft calibration.

Pavich spoke recently with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.

Where does most of your revenue come from?

Two years ago, it was the Missile Defense Agency. This year it’s NASA, which accounts for about 55 percent of our revenue. And it varies with program or project.

The RAMOS program was a substantial program for us, and losing it hurt. That was a major source of revenue. Now we’re doing the infrared telescope for a program called Wide-field Infrared Survey Experiment with NASA. We also have other NASA work including the Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer.

We’re working on about 100 projects. About 70 percent are for the Defense Department. Some of them are in their beginning stages, so they’re small-dollar now. We’ll do a $5,000 study, or a $100 million instrument.

Does the flexibility to work on both civil and military technology help you deal with the cyclical nature of the space business?

We have to do that. The big aerospace contractors have the same problem in various areas, but overall, they’re multibillion-dollar companies. As things go up and down, a company like the Space Dynamics Laboratory — or any company with 200-300 people, with niche-oriented people — as a nonprofit, you don’t have a lot of slush to carry people.

Which is why when the RAMOS program ended almost instantly, we laid off 44 people out of about 400. That’s the first time we had layoffs.

How did this affect your revenue?

Our 2005 revenue was down about $30 million from projections based on the loss of that program and the restructuring of the Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer, but we finished at around $52 million. We did $72 million in 2004.

Our projections for next year are about the same — about $55 million. We think we’ve turned the corner, but the focus has shifted to more small programs than one or two big programs.

What is the status of the Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer work?

The instrument is in calibration right now. It’s about finished. Don Hinsman, who runs space programs for the World Meteorological Organization, was the keynote speaker at our calibration conference in August. He was very, very interested in seeing the instrument fly.

If you look at the instrument, if it was up right now, it could provide the kind of enhanced scientific data and information that could feed the weather-predicting models and provide more accurate tracking of a storm like Hurricane Katrina, and probably provide a little bit earlier warning of where it was going to go.

Would that give people more time to evacuate?

Yes, and better determine who needs to evacuate. It costs about $1 million a mile (1.6 kilometers) to evacuate for a storm like that. The capabilities that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is going to get with its next generation of geostationary weather satellites will be the kinds of capabilities that the Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer was built to demonstrate. If we could find a launch for it and the money to space-qualify it — we don’t have all space-rated parts in it — it could be up in 2008.

Whether or not the instrument will find its way into space, I don’t know. It’s money based. The science is certainly worth doing. The capability of the instrument is worth doing. But it would probably cost about $100 million to finish and launch it.

The international community is interested in providing a ride, and there are a lot of conversations going on with them. And whether or not you could put together a package that is compliant with export rules, and find the dollars someplace to certify the instrument — there are a lot of unknowns.

There are a lot of good reasons why it should fly, and the only reason it’s not flying right now is money. The international community wants it to fly and could come up with a launch vehicle, but I don’t think they could come up with the money to get it space-qualified. You look at $62 billion being appropriated for clean up for Katrina and Rita, and less than 1 percent of that would fly this instrument. Would it be worth it?

If you could evacuate 100 miles less of coastline at $1 million per mile, you’d pay for it.

How does the Pentagon’s push toward responsive space systems affect your revenue outlook?

We helped put together a concept for a hyperspectral imager for the military’s TacSat program. They asked us to bid on building it, but it went to Raytheon. It was very frustrating.

We have capability in that area. We’re doing a little bit of research on a reconfigurable spacecraft, and how you build a stable of sensors that you can have on the shelf, because just having responsive satellites doesn’t do much good without payloads. We’re researching a number of technologies, one of which would be a breakthrough for the miniaturization of sensors.

What other opportunities do you see?

We’re looking at cyber security. There is a lot of potential damage that can be done in that area. In our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance division, we have done significant software-based work with things like data compression, so we have some capability for protection in that area, and will continue to develop it.

We’re also working on a project for the Department of Agriculture using lidar (light detection and ranging) , and partnering with university professors in the chemistry department to go to an agricultural site and demonstrate that something that cannot be seen by the visual eye can be seen by lidar. The elements of the off-gassing of a swine farm is an example.

We’re developing a mobile system that can be used to help that problem by measuring what is coming off, where is it going, how fast is it dissipating, the level of ammonia and other things that environmentalists are concerned with.

You get a stink off a pig farm. What’s in it? It smells bad, but is it health-harmful? The government tries to regulate when farmers plow their fields. Why? Is there a reason to do that? Is there something in that that is harmful? Until you characterize what is off-gassing and determine the amount, you don’t know. To have a mobile capability to check that out can help establish limits.

Are you concerned about losing work to the Air Force’s Arnold Engineering Test Center?

Arnold really deals with bigger stuff. I like to look at us as complementary. They were calibrating an instrument for the Missile Defense Agency’s Near Field Infrared Experiment satellite, and there were some issues with the spacecraft that I can’t get into that we were able to help with.

I view us as working cooperatively with government agencies involved in this area. We do different things — bring different things to the table — and together are much stronger than either of us independently.