Though parts for the new satellites are costing more than planned, says the rigor applied by the U.S. Air Force in quality assurance is setting a new industry standard.
Based on a recommendation from The Aerospace Corp., the Air Force required additional testing for parts bound for the GPS III satellites, says Keoki Jackson, Lockheed Martin’s navigation systems vice president. These tests were deemed necessary to avoid some of the problems that plagued past programs. For example, tin was found in a part of the(Sbirs) satellite after it was already built; this prompted significant work and testing to remove and replace the suspect part.
“It has been a significantly painful . . . one-time thing,” Jackson says of the process to test the GPS III parts. The cost increase has forced Lockheed Martin to forgo its $70 million incentive fee to help pay for about 18% in cost growth to the $1.4 billion contract, according to Vicki Stein, an Air Force spokeswoman. The GPS III program office estimates the cost of the development and first two satellites is now $1.6 billion owing to the higher cost for qualifying parts and unspecified “additional scope” added to the contract.
In some cases, suppliers balked at the demands because they were considered out of the norm and too costly. Lockheed Martin, however, “incentivized” them to do the proper testing, adding to the cost of the program.
“This is setting a new standard for the parts industry,” Jackson says, noting that the Air Force is likely to use this process for future satellite programs.
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin’s GPS III engineering pathfinder satellite, which is being used for development but will not be operational, is being worked on at the company’s facilities in Denver. With this pathfinder, company officials are using all of the same processes and tools that will be used in constructing the production satellites. This has resulted in at least a 60% reduction projected for defects for the first operational GPS satellite as well as reduced cycle time to build them, Jackson says, adding that the company is following a “design-for-manufacturing” philosophy.
Lockheed is working to set up the facility for GPS manufacturing; it was previously used for the Atlas V rocket and Centaur upper stage production. Though the factory is being outfitted to build four GPS III satellites annually, the Air Force has sliced its buy plans by half. The company is exploring whether to put other work, such as building the GOES satellite series, here to consume the excess capacity, says Mark Valerio, vice president of navigation and surveillance systems for the company.
Meanwhile, Lockheed is continuing to look at how to conduct dual launches of GPS III satellites, with two spacecraft boosted on one rocket. The Air Force ordered a study along those lines as it pursues reductions in launch costs. The first such launch could take place in 2017, with GPS III vehicle 5 and 6, Jackson says, onboard an Atlas V. Air Force officials are also askingto begin exploring how its Falcon 9 rocket family could conduct dual launches of GPS III spacecraft.