Pasadena, Calif. – Space industry leaders are welcoming the U.S. Air Force’s initiative to plow back money saved on space architecture policy changes into modernizing and upgrading newly deployed early warning and communications systems.

“It’s great to hear” says Mark Valerio, vice president and general manager of Military Space Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

Through the Space Modernization Initiative, Valerio says there is greater potential for continuing innovation, and to prevent the danger of “atrophy” in the company’s design community as programs such as SBIRS (space based infrared system) and GPS III move from development into production.

Speaking at the AIAA Space 2012 conference here, Valerio says “you just don’t need as many design engineers to build a production program.” The concept involves money freed up by Air Force initiatives such as increased numbers of segregated and hosted payloads, and leveraging commercial space launch, to augment capabilities of ongoing programs.

U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center commander Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski says the hope is to develop savings as well as, in some cases, new capabilities. “It shouldn’t cost as much to buy the next SBIRS as one and two.”

The modernization and capabilities insertion initiative should “allow us to take dollars ... to put new capabilities into systems like AEHF and SBIRS.”

“Innovation and affordability don’t have to be opposites. I want innovation that allows me to be affordable,” says Pawlikowski. For example, lithium batteries on GPS could allow for a smaller, cheaper bus, she adds. “We tend in this industry to not look at it this way. How do I apply technology and innovation to drive the cost down – and keep capability where it is.”

At the same time, Pawlikowski cautions that mission assurance will always take priority over some cost initiatives. Lockheed has proposed replacing an aging RH32-based processor dating from the early 1990s but still used on SBIRS, with a more modern, lower cost and more capable alternative used on GPS III. “I said ‘no’ because of the risk I see is associated with it. This is the same satellite we lost arguably three years to launch because of a software issue.”

'Convince the general'

Valerio indicates Lockheed will continue to lobby for the potential change. “We have to convince the general,” he jokes.

The switch would involve moving from the older Ada language used in the SBIRS processor to the C++ language in the GPS satellite.

Pawlikowski says that other cost and capability improvement initiatives have, however, been adopted where the risk is deemed acceptable.

The decision has been made, for example, to configure future GPS III satellites with a digital waveform generator because it offers “a huge payoff,” she adds. Despite all the initiatives coming in, Pawlikowski says “my first priority is I have got to provide the capability our services count on.”

Boeing Network and Space Systems President Roger Krone, meanwhile, says changes in Air Force procurement practices are already benefitting the cost of producing the WGS 2F military communications satellite. Since the contract was restructured to cut down the amount of government oversight involved in monitoring construction, Krone says the “tooth-to-tail ratio” has changed. “That’s a good thing,” he adds.