Despite having lost a $1.8 billion, winner-take-all development contract for the next generation of GPS satellites to five years ago, officials say that they are not out of the precision-timing and navigation business.
The company is continuing payload work on its own dime, says Craig Cooning, vice president of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, even as work wraps up on its GPS IIF satellite production line this year. After technical problems over the years and a transition to fixed-price purchasing with the U.S. Air Force, Boeing was unable to generate desired revenue from the IIF program. GPS IIF was “not really” profitable, Cooning acknowledged. But, the precision-navigation and timing satellite market is worth billions of dollars, and the company is keen on finding opportunities to stay in it.
Air Force officials said last year that the average cost of an IIF satellite is $121 million. Early models cost more than $300 million to build, owing to development challenges. Most were purchased under a fixed-price agreement.
With GPS IIF nearly in the rearview mirror, Cooning says, “We are continuing the game on GPS . . . We don't want to get out of that business. We are looking at alternate architectures for the GPS payload of the future—digital alternatives at how you do GPS in the future.” Boeing pitched its own payload in its proposal for thecompetition over an option from longtime GPS payload provider ITT Excelis.
ITT is months late delivering its payload to Lockheed Martin for integration onto the first GPS III satellite. At issue was off-nominal performance of the signals emitted from engineering hardware for the unit, ITT officials said during the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs in April. Lockheed Martin officials were sent to help ITT after the problems emerged, and they “continue to make good progress,” company spokesman Chip Eschenfelder said last month. “We are not working on any significant technical issues at this time and the payload is currently forecast to ship to Lockheed Martin in Denver in October.” He says the company still plans to deliver the first GPS III satellite on time in 2014, in advance of a launch slated for mid-2015.
In contrast, Boeing is wrapping up its GPS IIF satellite work this year. “Although we are going to complete the GPS IIF contract this year, we are going to continue to make the appropriate investments because we believe our technology, and the expertise in our people and our electronic products is something that, ultimately, the government is going to want,” Cooning says.
The Pentagon constantly studies the health of the GPS architecture, including the satellites in orbit and new spacecraft on the ground ready for launch. However, financial pressure for reduced procurement toplines and sequestration is fueling questions for advocates of different GPS architectures. These could include using hosted timing and navigation payloads to augment the signal provided by the baseline constellation, or streamlined satellite designs that lack the sophisticated nuclear detection payload collocated with the GPS equipment on the satellites being built by Lockheed Martin under GPS III.
Boeing is completing work on its 12th and final GPS IIF satellite at the production facility here now. Four of the satellites are in orbit, and the fifth is slated for launch in October. The remaining spacecraft will be put in storage until the Air Force requests that they be readied for launch.
As Boeing continues its payload development work, it is taking lessons from the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) program, Cooning says. “We do have digital technology processing capability based off a channelizer on WGS that was part of what we bid for GPS III, which during the GPS III bid we did significant developmental activities on.” Cooning said this could be a “mainstream” payload for GPS in the future but did not say whether the company is pushing to supplant ITT as a payload provider for Lockheed Martin.
Boeing will be drawing lessons from its challenges in the IIF program as well. A problem with trapped air in a bulb, which sets the frequency standard for the cesium clock on the GPS IIF payload design, prompted installation of a better bulb design on production satellites. Each GPS IIF satellite has two, older-style rubidium clocks in addition to the newer cesium design.
Also new on GPS IIF-4 was a software fix designed to eliminate a battery charger “drop-out” issue found on the ground prior to its launch in May. A problem with the power-conditioning unit (PCU) design was found to the be the root of the drop-outs. An upgraded PCU design is being installed on GPS IIF Satellites 5-12.
Boeing remains on contract to provide launch and on-orbit support for the GPS IIF satellites through 2017.