The 29th Annual National Space Symposium: Better Every Year

April 10, 2013  - By

Neither rain, sleet, snow, hail, wind, nor dark of night will deter…

Loosely Translated, Herodotus, Histories (8.98)

…attendees at the 29th National Space Symposium from their appointed rounds.

Seriously, folks, with apologies to postal workers everywhere, here in the Rocky Mountains it was 72 degrees on the eighth of April, the first day of the largest space symposium in the world. This morning, the ninth, the startled thermometer hovered around eleven degrees with snow, high winds and attendees searching for any outer wear they could find. And except for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) personnel, everyone braved the weather and soldiered on.

NASA, of course, one of the few government agencies with space in its name, decided they did not need to attend the National Space Symposium this year. But that is NASA’s loss and a story for another time, because more than 9,000 other dedicated space professionals did attend, and more than 170 companies provided major exhibits that filled to capacity the largest pillar-less exhibition hall west of the Mississippi. Just writing this makes my feet hurt. And the best part is this all takes place at the five-star Broadmoor Resort in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, hence Mother Nature’s raucous spring weather shenanigans.

This is truly a watershed event for the global space community, and it improves every year. I have had the honor of attending 25 of the 29 National Space Symposiums, and as usual there are always a few major topics of interest that everyone wants to discuss. This year I can literally not walk ten feet without someone stopping me to discuss:

  1. The error-plagued GAO (Government Accountability Office) OCX (Next Generation GPS Operational Control System) report and subsequent regrettable sensationalized news reports
  2. The actual status of the OCX program
  3. Lockheed Martin’s GPS III program
  4. NavSat – Nee Parkinson’s NibbleSat – real or imagined
  5. Software-defined GPS receivers and GPS user equipment in general

When it comes to opinions, informed or otherwise, concerning each of these topics, the resulting litany reminds me of the old saw about asking three psychologists to comment on a patient’s diagnosis, and you will invariably wind up with four opinions. But have no fear: I spoke directly with the prime companies developing each of these programs, and the following is straight from the horse’s mouth, or some other part of their anatomy as the case may be. You be the judge.


The Government Accountability Office, which historically is anything but, released a report on March 28titled “Defense Acquisitions: Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs,” in which it seems to claim that the original $886 million GPS OCX program awarded to Raytheon Information Systems in Aurora, Colorado, in February 2010, has grown by 43 percent and ballooned to $3.695 billion. In fact, the report does not actually say that exactly, but you have to dig deep to determine that. Most readers won’t take the time to do that and will assume that the OCX program is grossly over budget. It is not. In fact, to reach that extraordinary number, OCX cost overruns would need to have grown by 43 percent for each year since it was awarded, and that is ludicrous. According to Raytheon VP and OCX Program Manager Ray Kolibaba, the $3.695 billion number probably comes from including “…programmatic costs beyond OCX development costs and pessimistic projections from the government” that in my experience no acquisition agency, nor Congress for that matter, would ever include when determining true program cost adherence parameters. Such ancillary costs would certainly never be included in a Nunn-McCurdy-Sarbanes-Oxley-Graham-Rudman-Harry Potter fiscal responsibility evaluation.

Speaking from personal experience, in 1990 I was appointed the very first Legislative Liaison Director for Headquarters Air Force Space Command. I had a small office and staff and spent most of my time on Capitol Hill meeting with congressmen and senators, where I advocated the latest space programs, and/or sat in on congressional hearings and then advised senior U.S. Air Force space officials on what budget and policy decisions they could expect from Congress. And I can tell you now, using the methods the GAO concocted to compile this report, I could cause any space program to come under close and unwarranted scrutiny. However, using time-tested congressional oversight rules of engagement (ROE), OCX has not come close to triggering any of the automated congressional watchdog cost overrun tripwires. The truth of the matter is OCX has grown in scope and schedule due in part to government change requests, mainly in the cyber and information assurance areas, along with affordability mandates due to schedule slips and sequestration. According to Stephen Moran, Raytheon mission solutions director, the true cost of OCX today is approximately $967 million, which means the total program cost to date has grown by approximately 10 percent, a far cry from the fictitious annualized 43 percent increase claimed by the GAO. While the GAO goes to great lengths to justify its inflated numbers, it is comparing or rather sensationalizing apples and oranges.

Some may say, so what? Who outside of Washington D.C. reads or believes GAO reports? Unfortunately, Congress, the congressional staff and congressional budgeters read these reports, since the GAO is officially the investigative arm of Congress. In fact the GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. Often called the “congressional watchdog,” GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. And many times they do a great job. But in this case they are wide of the mark. It would be a shame if Congress cancelled OCX because of a flawed or, at a minimum, a poorly explained report.

Ray Kolibaba and Stephen Moran assured me during our talks at the 29th NSS that OCX was alive and well and on track to meet a re-baselined time and costs schedule. OCX Block One RTO should occur as planned in the first quarter of 2017 and will include the ability to launch and control GPS IIF and GPS III satellites and payloads, but not GPS IIA satellites and payloads. That mission, along with the responsibility for maintaining residual satellites, still falls to the LADO (Launch Anomaly and Disposal Operations) contractor Braxton Technologies, which is an OCX subcontractor to Raytheon.

The bottom line is the OCX schedule has slipped and the budget has grown, but within historically acceptable parameters; certainly, it is not even close to triggering congressional oversight. However, having said that, in this budget sequestration environment, the overall GPS budget has taken some significant hits so that even the slightest cost overrun is of concern. Still, let’s hope that Congress makes funding decisions using actual historically acceptable numbers and not overblown rhetoric.


Keoki Jackson

Keoki Jackson

Let me say right up front that I really like Keoki Jackson and what he has accomplished on the GPS III program at Lockheed Martin. Keoki is the vice president of Navigation Systems, and as such heads the GPS III program. Keoki has an honest and open demeanor and just oozes integrity. He runs a very open program and, indeed, has extended an open invitation to me, wearing multiple hats, to visit the LMCO GPS III facility in Waterton, Colorado, to discuss GPS III anytime. Believe me, I have and will continue to take him up on his offer. To someone in my line of work, that confidence speaks volumes. Keoki obviously has supreme faith in his people, and is assured the GPS III program is on the path to success. I spoke with Keoki on Monday, April 8, as I toured the GPS III facility with him. He was like a father with pictures of his children. Happy, smiling, engaging — he could not wait to show off their latest accomplishments.

My bottom line is this is a rare attitude among senior execs and PMs on major space programs. And that may be because so many of them are under congressional scrutiny. Not the case for GPS III, however. The back-to-basics GPS III program is on schedule and budget, and is set to deliver GPS III SV-01in May 2014, exactly six years after program award. The USAF has said it may not launch the first GPS III until April 2015, but that is a separate ground support and commanding issue. It has nothing to do with the schedule and availability of the GPS III satellites.

Historically, LMCO-built satellites are some of the best in the world. According to LMCO statistics, and verified by yours truly, LMCO GPS satellite vehicles have accumulated more than 175 operational years on orbit with a reliability record better than 99.9 percent. Keoki also proudly pointed out that the Lockheed Martin heritage dates back to the production of the Oscar and Nova Transit satellites — programs that paved the way for the current GPS gold standard on orbit today.

Now, don’t let the back-to-basics approach fool you. That just means sound, solid, proven engineering and management practices are employed, but the technology is anything but basic. The kingpin of the LMCO GPS III approach is an artifact known as the GNST, or pathfinder spacecraft. The GPS III Non Flight Satellite Testbed (GNST) gives everyone confidence that Lockheed is on the right track. The pathfinder goes through all the rigorous steps a flight article goes through, only it completes them first and allows LMCO personnel to find all those schedule-busting, expensive glitches that show up in any program. As Keoki said, “Our endeavor is to find any anomalies now before the satellites and payloads are on orbit.” The GNST, along with cutting-edge 3-D motion studies with avatars (an amazing story and teaser for another time), will hopefully allow a smooth transition for SV-01 through SV-09 when the program plans to initiate programmatic and hardware changes to allow for the first-ever GPS dual launch.

This is a far different approach from the Boeing GPS IIF spacecraft and payloads, which experienced major anomalies on orbit for the first two SVs. Changes were made to subsequent ground space vehicles before launch, but the first two SVs on orbit are stuck with those anomalies. The LMCO approach hopes to eliminate or at least minimize that risk. If the full LMCO GPS III program comes to fruition, there could eventually be as many as 32 GPS III satellites in various configurations on orbit. Which means Keoki will probably be referring to GPS IIIs not as children but grandchildren, and he will need a much bigger scrapbook. Bottom line, GPS III is alive and well, on schedule and budget.

NavSat or NibbleSat

For those of you who have not heard about the NavSat or NibbleSat, it is a small GPS satellite endeavor by AFSPC, SMC, and AFRL to determine the feasibility of building a GPS-only small satellite, one without NDS, SAR, or any other auxiliary payloads. However, this is not solely a Weight Watchers program — it is about far more than a slimmed-down GPS. It addresses technological aspects of the GPS program as well as SWAP (size, weight, and power) issues that have plagued the GPS program since its inception.

Since 1978 when the very first GPS satellite was launched, the program has grown in complexity and size with ancillary payloads, more signals, more power, and more flexibility, which all add up to a heavier, more complex satellite — and in space, where weight and complexity equal greater costs. GPS III has finally reached the point that it will cost nearly $450 million to place a single GPS SV and payload in orbit.

As I said earlier, the GPS III payload may last 30 years, which equates to a sizeable return on your investment (ROE) for space assets, but in this constrained sequestration budget environment Congress is not looking down the road 30 years; it is barely able to consider the FYDP or the next five years’ development plan budget. So $450 million per GPS III on orbit is a big number. Even with dual launch, according to Lockheed’s Keoki Jackson (see above, “LMCO and GPS III”), from SV-09 forward the savings will only amount to about $70M per launch because it will require a larger launch vehicle. Certainly, $70 million is not a number to disregard, especially if you could build and launch a small GPS-only SV for that same amount. I know it sounds nearly impossible, but that is what the NavSat program hopes to achieve. To date, no less than 20 companies, U.S. and European, have expressed an interest in making NavSat happen. Most companies I spoke with are convinced it is not a technological issue, but a commitment and funding issue on behalf of the U.S. government. So what else is new? In my book, NavSat is a real possibility, and the recent plethora of BAAs (Broad Area Announcements) from SMC (Space and Missile Systems Center), AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory), and SPAWAR (Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command) attest to that fact. Stay tuned for more.

GPS Payloads, Receivers: Software-Defined and Otherwise

It is a fact of life where GPS is concerned that when you talk about GPS technology, you are talking about ITT Exelis. There is not a single U.S. GPS payload on orbit today that was not built in whole or in part by ITT Exelis. There are few companies in the world today that can claim such a prestigious record for space assets that are arguable the best in the world. The ITT Exelis record of providing proven GPS payloads for 35 years is unequaled in the space arena, and the company continues to innovate and grow. So, it should come as no surprise that Exelis provided LMCO with the GPS payload for the GNST pathfinder mentioned earlier. The bottom line is, when it comes to GPS payloads, nobody does it better than ITT Exelis.

Therefore, I took the opportunity to sit down with Mark Pisani, a vice president and general manager in the geospatial systems business at ITT Exelis, to discuss the recent $2.15 million contract award from AFRL to research navigation payloads to support the current GPS program and the NavSat program specifically. Mark stated that the technologies being investigated could easily translate to the entire GPS program.

Mr. Pisani stated that over the next 18 months, the company will conduct research into potential methods to reduce payload size, weight, and power, and improve GPS signal strength and reception for disadvantaged users, especially warfighters, in either urban canyons or mountainous terrain. ITT Exelis is also working on new methods of tamper-proofing for its GPS reference and monitor receivers, which will deployed around the globe to ensure GPS accuracy for all global users. So it appears that where GPS is concerned, you name it and ITT Exelis is working some aspect of the program.

NSS Wrap-up


Space Foundation Leadership Team.

NSS 29 is still in full swing as I write this. Indeed, my old friend and colleague in uniform, General William (Willie) Shelton, just gave his state-of-the-military-space-community address, and he did it in his usual exemplary manner. Few generals can match his grace and style. But to paraphrase Robert Frost, “…deadlines, time and tides wait for no man,” so I will wrap up with a few personal observations.

As many of you have heard me say, year after year, the National Space Symposium is like no other space event in the world. It gets bigger and better every year, and this year events extended all the way to LMCO in Denver and to Broadmoor properties that have never been used for this event previously. The NSS agenda and speakers are top notch and international in nature. Just a sampling are George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA), and Yasushi Horikawa, chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Officials from commercial space leaders such as LMCO, SpaceX, Boeing, XCOR Aerospace, Sierra Nevada Space Systems, and others will also speak, while actress Sigourney Weaver, star of the Alien films among others, is the featured speaker at the Space Technology Hall of Fame gala tomorrow night. So there is literally something for everyone.

Sigourney Weaver

Sigourney Weaver

I have known Elliot Holokauahi (yes, it is a mouthful) Pulham (CEO), Chief Chuck Zimkas (USAF, Ret) who serves as president of the Space Foundation, and Holly Roberts, the CFO, for many, many years, and they are always striving to make the National Space Symposium better every year; in my book, they have succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Their zeal is combined with the dedicated support of Steve Bartolin, CEO and president of the Broadmoor. I first met Steve more than 25 years ago when he ran the famed Greenbriar Resort in White Sulphir Springs, West Virginia, the playground of congressmen and senators. Steve has always had a penchant for living in places that ended in Springs, as well as for perfect service, while going to great lengths to make sure his employees are happy and enjoy their work. It shows at the Broadmoor, which is a Triple AAA Five Diamond Resort, and has been for more than 20 years. Together, Steve’s commitment to perfection and the vision of the Space Foundation make the National Space Symposium not only the world’s largest but by far the best space symposium in the world today.

Braxton Technologies Sets the Example

Personally, I enjoy the exhibit hall and tend to spend most of my time there. The event along with the Cyber presentations lasts for four full days, but you cannot see and do everything in that time, which leads me a personal observation. Many of the vendors and exhibitors in the past several years have begun to offer refreshments in their booth space, to help draw in the huge crowds always roaming the exhibition floor. Some offer ice cream, coffee, even beer and pretzels, but personally I like what Braxton Technologies has developed. Remember, this is a Space Symposium, so Braxton decided to mount small-scale full working models of various satellites above their booth space and allow attendees to actually send wireless commands to control the satellites. You can sit at one of their control stations, see a real spacecraft commanding (TT&C) screen, send commands to the scale-model satellites, and watch the satellites react in real time.

Now, Fred (I call him the model builder and engineer extraordinaire) is the one who built the majority of the models, and they are an excellent example of fine craftsmanship. Indeed, the first night there were some issues with one of the older models, and Fred stayed in the booth working the problem from closing time on Monday evening until 0700 on Tuesday morning. And his hard work paid off, because there is always a crowd around the Braxton booth waiting to control or just watch the satellites respond. The Braxton folks are very good at and very proud of what they do, and it shows. They automated GPS scheduling, on their own nickel last year, and this year offer a glimpse at the future of GPS mission planning. Plus, they have an application for unimproved aircraft landing sites around the world that is simply amazing.

But, in the end it is watching the children, the future space operators and astronauts, who gather in huge crowds around the Braxton booth, waiting with thinly veiled anticipation to send a command to a satellite. It has been a long time since I was a child, but you should have seen the smile on my face when Fred allowed me to send a command and I could see the satellite model respond. Both Frank Backes, Braxton CEO, and Kenny O’Neil, Braxton president, and most of the Braxton employees are former space operators, and they have not forgotten the thrill of actually commanding satellites. Now they have made that thrill available for our future space operators. I think they hit it out of the park.

There’s still time. Drop by the Braxton booth, speak with Fred, and send a command to a satellite. Oh, and you are allowed to smile!

Until next time, happy navigating, and go fly a satellite!

This article is tagged with , and posted in Defense, Opinions

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.