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GPS programs at a crossroads: Which way forward?

December 9, 2015  - By

The late, great, oft-quoted Yogi Berra, in an interview shortly before his passing, was quoted as saying “I never said most of the things I said.” For our purposes, let’s concentrate on one of his most famous quotes: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

On to GPS. I use the term GPS in a ubiquitous PNT (position, navigation and timing) sense for simplicity, because most people today use the term in a universal sense, similar to how we say “Google It” no matter which search engine we’re actually using.

Today, GPS is indeed at a crossroads, and there are multiple paths or avenues to follow — or Courses of Action (COA), as the government likes to say. Fortunately, most of you reading this fully realize GPS is so much more than just an atomic reference system in MEO, or Medium Earth Orbit. Let’s review the various GPS programs and see how they’re faring.


Let’s be conventional and start with the hardware, the actual satellite bus (vehicle) being built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in its Waterton facility in the beautiful foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Littleton just west of Denver, Colorado.

In an October 2015 speech before the International Astronautical Congress in Jerusalem, Israel, LMCO Chairman, President and CEO Marillyn Hewson stated the following in a marvelous speech entitled “There are No Borders in Space: International Cooperation Will Drive the New Space Age:”

“We must focus on three priorities for the future of space. The first is space as an instrument to create global industrial partnership. Second is space as a driver of economic growth. And third is space as an opportunity to inspire the next generation of innovators.”

Chairman Hewson concentrated on the future of space, as are we, and probably due to her venue, she naturally chose to focus on international cooperation. She went on to say this about GPS specifically:

“GPS III, the next-generation of the U.S. Air Force’s Global Positioning System, will share a new, common civil signal with other international navigation satellites like Galileo and GLONASS. That means people around the world will have more accurate and reliable positioning data and connectivity from a truly global positioning constellation.”

Speaking about space capabilities and opportunities in general, she said:

“Space-based technologies are ubiquitous today. Want to find an address? Find out the weather forecast? Talk to someone on the other side of the world? The fact is, space is already an enabler of economic growth. And with today’s innovations combined with the power of international partnerships, it has the potential to drive magnitudes more.

“Today, the space sector represents about 1 percent of global economic activity. Yet, I could argue that without space, the other 99 percent wouldn’t be nearly as effective or efficient. Partners are developing commercial satellites that connect people around the world, enable distance learning and fuel job growth in many sectors of the global economy.”

You really can’t fault any of Chairman Hewson’s statements about space and GPS in particular. Indeed, it is an excellent presentation as it embodies the essence of motherhood and apple pie for space-faring nations.

However, she has glossed over one of the most pressing problems, not only for GPS III, but for all potential U.S. space-based assets still to be launched: access to space. How are we going to actually lift the satellites into orbit? Where are the launch vehicles?

United Launch Alliance

ULA launch. (Courtesy of United Launch Alliance)

ULA launch. (Courtesy of United Launch Alliance)

Many of you may have seen the latest GPS III launch services announcement by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a consortium of Boeing and LMCO launch companies taking advantage of the synergies each company brings to the launch arena. Officially, ULA is described as a 50-50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company, formed in 2006 to provide reliable, cost-efficient access to space for U.S. government missions.

Just a few weeks ago, ULA — the consortium that has launched all GPS satellites since 2006 with more than 90 consecutive government launches without a single failure, a world record — made what many consider to be a startling, albeit carefully worded, announcement regarding the latest and what many consider to be unduly restrictive government GPS III RFP (Request For Proposal) for launch services.

“ULA wants nothing more than to compete, but unfortunately we are unable to submit a compliant bid for GPS III-X launch services. The RFP requires ULA to certify that funds from other government contracts will not benefit the GPS III launch mission. ULA does not have the accounting systems in place to make that certification, and therefore cannot submit a compliant proposal.

“In addition, the RFP’s Lowest Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA) structure allows for no ability to differentiate between competitors on the basis of critical factors such as reliability, schedule certainty, technical capability and past performance.

“Further, under the restrictions imposed by the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), ULA does not currently have any Atlas engines available to bid and therefore is unable to submit a timely proposal.

“ULA remains fully committed to supporting America’s national security missions with world-class launch services. We look forward to working with the Air Force to address the obstacles to ULA’s participation in future launch competitions to enable a full and fair competition.”

A separate ULA press release states ULA will continue with development of its Vulcan launch vehicle, which they bill as a next-generation launch system. So it appears that it is merely the restrictions and caveats that pose a problem for ULA and GPS III launches, not technology or timelines.

“With the introduction of the Vulcan, ULA’s next-generation launch system (NGLS), ULA is transforming the future of space launch — making it more affordable, accessible and commercialized — and innovating to develop solutions to the nation’s most critical need: reliable access to space,” ULA said.

The Falcon .9 (Courtesy of SpaceX)

The Falcon .9 (Courtesy of SpaceX)


With ULA out of the picture, at least temporarily, for GPS III launches, this leaves the door open for Elon Musk, recently of Big Bang Theory fame, and his Space Exploration Technologies Corporation better known as SpaceX to step in and fill the void presumably with a variation of their heavy lift Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX promotes itself as the largest private producer of rocket engines worldwide, and no doubt that is true. SpaceX has demonstrated the capability for both successful launches and spectacular failures. That is almost to be expected for a new rocket engine and a new company, which only came about in 2002. However, where human lives are concerned, failure is not an acceptable option.

SpaceX is very much aware that a launch failure resulting in lives lost might well spell the end of SpaceX. With that as a given, SpaceX recently delivered its 100th Merlin 1D engine, nine of which form the basis for the first stage of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Indeed, SpaceX touts unparalleled redundancy — with nine Merlin 1D engines on the first stage, it could actually overcome a failure of any one of the Merlin engines and still have a successful launch.

Merlin ID engines all in a row. (Courtesy of SpaceX)

Merlin ID engines all in a row. (Courtesy of SpaceX)

Only time will tell, however, and this scenario leaves the U.S. government with very few options as long as the current guidelines regarding the Russian RD-180 core are in place. Other companies such as Moog, Orbital Sciences, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origins and ATK, to name a few potential contenders, could separately or as a team bid on the next-generation launch vehicle for GPS III.

However, that would mean storing the GPS III satellites and payloads for inordinately long periods of time, which is both expensive and risky. Expensive in dollars, since each GPS III space vehicle (SV) would cost approximately $1 million per year — not an official figure, but a best guess from several sources, to store, and expensive and risky from an operational point of view in that the federal government and LMCO would have no idea if the GPS III SVs and payloads really worked as advertised.

They would have no idea if there were any major flaws or anomalies, and once the production line at LMCO space systems was shut down, it would be prohibitively expensive to restart, if that were even possible. Remember, three GPS III SVs are being constructed currently, and today there are only eight confirmed orders for GPS III SVs.

As for major anomalies, just think back to the GPS IIF launches where the first four each revealed a major and separate anomaly for IIF SVs that had to be corrected on all future SVs and payloads before further launches occurred.

My sources at LMCO in Littleton assure me the first GPS III SV with a complete payload, built by Harris nee Exelis, nee ITT, will be ready for delivery to the government in mid-2016, possibly earlier. With a 90-day checkout the first GPS III SV could be ready for launch as early as late fall 2016.

The problem at that point becomes — and actually is a problem right here and now — there is no evidence that the government currently has a viable certified program to launch, control or maintain the GPS III satellites and payloads. But that is another story with many twists and turns.

The Road Less Taken

Apparently, there are numerous options for the government where GPS programs are concerned, and for a change many of those options, while being considered outside the box, actually appear to be the smarter choice.

As that great American poet Robert Frost once famously wrote:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Until next time, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year and Happy Navigating on that road less traveled by.

About the Author: Don Jewell

Don Jewell served 30 years in the United States Air Force, as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. Don’s involvement with GPS and other critical space systems began with their inception, either as a test system evaluator or user. He served two command assignments at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, and retired as Deputy Chief Scientist for Air Force Space Command. Don also served as a Politico Military Affairs Officer during the Reagan administration, working with 32 foreign embassies and serving as a Foreign Disclosure Officer making critical export control decisions concerning sophisticated military hardware and software. After retiring from the USAF, Don served seven years as the senior space marketer and subject-matter expert for two of the largest government contractors dealing in space software and hardware. Don currently serves on two independent GPS review teams he helped found, and on three independent assessment teams at the Institute for Defense Analyses, dealing with critical issues for the U.S. government. Don has served on numerous Air Force and Defense Scientific Advisory Boards. He writes and speaks extensively on technical issues concerning the U.S. government. Don earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA; the Ph.D. is in progress.