Inside the Space Systems Loral 'U.S. Access Plan'

The famed Silicon Valley satellite outfit Space Systems Loral is moving into the classified space arena and its government leader takes us inside the company's "U.S. Access Plan."

Canada’s best-known space company is on a mission to further extend its market profile south of the border and gain a more significant presence with U.S. government agencies, particularly with classified work.

Vancouver-based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates’ “U.S. Access Plan” can be traced back to MDA’s $875 million buy in 2012 of the famed Silicon Valley outfit Space Systems Loral, which traces its own five-decade heritage to the former Ford Aerospace business.

Fast forward to today and MDA has completed several steps in that plan to gain eligibility for classified space contracts. Palo Alto, Calif.-based SSL will be its a primary business serving the federal market. This push aims to increase its footprint in a space market Richard White, SSL’s government business leader, described to Washington Technology as “bullish” and where “budgets are solid.”

Priorities are shifting for NASA but core focus areas for science, research and a potential Mars mission remain, White said in an interview at SSL’s government headquarters in Chantilly, Va. The Defense Department’s need to send and receive information through satellites is also enduring, White said.

“Space is critical not only our day-to-day lives but in many mission areas of the U.S. government whether it’s communications or situational awareness,” White said. “We have to maintain a robust and resilient space architecture. I think our government understands the importance of it both on the science and technology side, plus how it enables missions.”

The company’s U.S. Access Plan included the May 2016 appointment of U.S. citizen and former Harris Corp. CEO Howard Lance as MDA’s chief executive. Late last year, MDA started San Francisco-based holding company SSL MDA Holdings to act as the operating entity for all of MDA’s U.S. and Canada businesses. SSL MDA Holdings has its own executive team and board of directors, all U.S. citizens.

SSL MDA Holdings signed in January a security control agreement with the Defense Department to complete one step for classified contract eligibility. The business also holds a facility clearance for the San Francisco site and is awaiting the same accreditation for SSL’s Palo Alto manufacturing hub, home to 2,300 engineers and technicians.

“The day-to-day operations are fully run underneath the control of the U.S. company,” White said. “That is what we got a security control agreement for. With that in place, it enables any component within that to get a facility clearance.”

While the U.S. Access Plan’s main goal is to gain classified work, SSL has within the past year scored a pair of high-profile wins in the unclassified arena focused on robotics. White described to Washington Technology robotic servicing of satellites in space as a key focus area for SSL in its government market strategy.

SSL’s Restore-L contract with NASA calls on the company to build a spacecraft that can use robotic arms to grab, refuel and move a U.S. government satellite in low earth orbit. SSL is also working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on a similar robotics program that can work on satellites in high-Earth and geosynchronous orbits.

“With on-orbit servicing programs, we are now going to be able to extend the life of satellites, relocate , repair and inspect them if necessary,” White said. “We’re now on the forefront of doing that, so it gets you to the concept of a configurable on-orbit satellite.

“Think of USB ports where you might in the future pull out a payload and put in a new payload. Or go up and repair or replace a component that has failed, to the point where you might be able send a satellite up in parts and build it on-orbit.”

SSL is currently carrying out studies with NASA on potential ways to assemble satellites in space, White said. This is all part of a concept White termed as “the new space” that changes how the space community thinks about resiliency of assets and the role of industry in helping government with that effort.

“Maybe traditionally you put a satellite up with a 10-15 year lifespan, some of that is because it runs out of fuel or a component wears out or maybe is no longer relevant because the mission has changed.

“What if you can keep the infrastructure there, go up and refuel, put in a new payload component or repair it? That provides all sorts of interesting ways to enable the government’s missions.”

(Below: an SSL artist’s concept of the RSGS Robotic Servicing Vehicle providing on-orbit robotic assembly)

White first joined SSL in October as senior vice president of business development for government systems to help carry out the U.S. Access Plan. He then was promoted to president in April as SSL added three new members to the government systems leadership team.

White previously led Alexandria, Va.-based government services contractor Capstone Corp. for three years after a three-decade career Harris that included leadership roles for healthcare, cyber and IT services and where it all began for him in space.

“I grew up in the space business, that’s where I started building components for satellites,” White said. “The opportunity to get back into the space and technology domain was exciting to me.”

SSL’s five-decade history appealed to White as was its base of technical talent and commercial-focused manufacturing processes to make many satellites quickly, he said.

“If you go out to Palo Alto what you see is a true satellite factory,” White said. “In this case, the raw materials come in at one end and satellites come out of the other. In a busy cycle you might see one satellite a month.”

The steps for SSL and its MDA parent to increase eligibility have been gradual with appointments such as those of Lance and White and the needed certifications.

MDA made a separate, high-profile and immediate splash for its U.S. Access Plan in February when the parent announced its acquisition of Earth imagery giant DigitalGlobe. Expected to close in the second half of this year, the deal seeks to combine MDA’s satellite systems and services with that of DigitalGlobe plus the latter’s image library and analytics offerings.

The MDA-DigitalGlobe combination offers customers a “mission value chain” for many functions related to space, White told Washington Technology.

“(DigitalGlobe’s) knowledge of satellite systems, information analysis and the products they provide go well with our geospatial and satellite manufacturing capabilities,” White said. “Combining them, you really start to get a rich data set that I think will give great value to customers as we unlock the synergies that will exist.”

Upon closure, DigitalGlobe will operate as a subsidiary under the SSL MDA Holdings company in the same way as SSL. Based on pro forma figures, MDA estimates the combined company’s 2016 revenue at nearly $2 billion with one-fourth of that from U.S. government agencies. Post-close, MDA will list its shares for public trading on the New York Stock Exchange in addition to those already available on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Space Systems/Loral’s roots go back to the 1957 founding by the former Philco as Western Development Laboratories, which changed its name to Philco-Ford in 1966. Philco-Ford became the space systems division of Ford Aerospace in 1976.

Ford then sold the entire Aerospace business for $715 million to the former Loral Corp. in 1990, after which the space division took on the name of Space Systems/Loral.

SSL then moved in 1996 to Loral Space & Communications, a company formed at the time from the remnants of Loral Corp. when the latter sold its defense electronics and system integration businesses to Lockheed Martin for $9.1 billion.

MDA purchased SSL in 2012 to add a major commercial satellite manufacturing footprint in the U.S., a market long-desired for expansion by MDA. At the time, only 1 percent of SSL’s business base was in the government sector.