Brooks McKinney

Sep 14th 2020

How Spacecraft Are Created: Mission Conception


Activities conducted using spacecraft have become a ubiquitous part of our society. From monitoring hurricanes to measuring the ozone layer, U.S. government agencies today rely heavily on satellites and aerospace technology to conduct their day-to-day activities. But how are satellites conceived, designed, produced and deployed?

NASA describes spacecraft as “a vehicle or device designed for travel or operation outside the Earth’s atmosphere.” A satellite is described as “a type of spacecraft that orbits the Earth, the moon or another celestial body.” In this series, we will use the terms spacecraft and satellite interchangeably.

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Every satellite project begins with a problem to be solved. The problem may be scientific, societal or political. And it typically involves questions such as, “What could we learn by collecting data X from space?” or “How often do we need to collect that data to understand phenomenon Y more clearly?”

An idea for a new satellite can come from anywhere: an executive or program manager with a U.S. government agency such as NASA or the Department of Defense, an engineer in a government or industry laboratory, or maybe even a university student.

A new satellite program could also originate from an informal conversation between a U.S. government official and an aerospace contractor, perhaps at the executive level, explains Brandt Pyles, a director of business development for Northrop Grumman.

“If the priority (for the new program) is high, and it doesn’t cost too much, it could get sketched out on the back of the proverbial napkin, iterated a few times, and kicked off in pretty short order,” he said. But generally, the process takes longer and includes a more formal set of steps, he cautioned.

What’s Available Today?

No matter how the conversation starts, the next step for the government is to identify the technical feasibility of developing and launching the new satellite system. That step usually comes in the form of a request for information (RFI) to potential satellite developers such as Northrop Grumman. By law, the government has to give all aerospace contractors an equal opportunity to learn about and bid on potential new projects.

The RFI helps the government identify satellite capabilities and aerospace technologies that are currently available to address its new mission requirement. It’s also an opportunity for a contractor to propose using a new aerospace technology that’s been developed through the contractor’s Independent Research & Development (IR&D) efforts.

Mapping Out Options

If the information gleaned from the RFI process seems promising, the government may issue a short-term agreement called a study contract — notionally six to 12 months long with a value of maybe $1 million — to several potential bidders.

The purpose of the study contract is to flesh out a conceptual design or mission architecture for the customer’s desired satellite system. The design might describe, for example, the size and number of satellites needed to achieve the mission, the inclination of the orbits, the frequency of data collection, and perhaps the techniques used to downlink that data to the Earth.

According to Pyles, the study contract is the beginning of an iterative “conversation” with the customer about the satellite system they want. The process typically involves at least two rounds of studies during which contractors refine their understanding of the customer’s problem, and “dial-in” their proposed solutions.

“Study contracts bring together a small team of people with the skills and experience to map out the desired system,” he said. “Typically, the team includes spacecraft systems engineers, space vehicle designers, payload systems engineers, and specialists in satellite integration and test.”

The key concept here, added Pyles, is that the study contract team should represent every major discipline — mission engineering, systems engineering, design, assembly, integration and test, launch, deployment, and ground command and control —- that would participate in an actual satellite development program.

“You can’t afford to design a satellite that can’t be produced, produce a satellite that can’t be tested, or launch a satellite that can’t reach its desired orbit simply because you failed to engage key stakeholders early enough in the design process,” he said.

Are We There Yet?

By the end of the study contracts process, the customer will likely have narrowed the field of bidders and started to gain confidence in the design of the satellite system it wants to produce.

“As much as possible, you’d like to accomplish the proposed mission with existing payload elements and existing sensors,” said Howard Eller, advanced systems tech fellow for Northrop Grumman. “The more you can use existing technologies and capabilities, the lower the risk, the more quickly you can deliver the spacecraft, and the lower the likelihood of exceeding the program budget.”

On the other hand, Eller continued, opting to use newly-developed aerospace technology can open up a new world of scientific discovery or enable a new military capability, even if it means adding cost or technical risk to the spacecraft development process.

Final Touches

Once the government is confident in the system it wants to produce, it double-checks to make sure its final mission requirements are affordable, not too risky, and can be met in a reasonable amount of time by its bidders. Enter the draft request for proposals (RFP).

As its name implies, the draft RFP is a preliminary version of the official document that the government will issue to solicit bids from industry to design, produce and deliver the desired spacecraft.

“The government will issue a draft RFP and say, ‘How does this look to you?'” explains Eller. “And we’ll say, ‘Oh, you know this looks great, except this would be a problem for us, or this proposed approach will cost you a lot more money and not deliver the performance you want, so we suggest you change this.'”

Every potential bidder has an opportunity to comment on the draft RFP. And inevitably, those comments reflect differences of opinion on how the satellite system should be defined and developed.

“Ultimately,” said Eller, “the customer has to decide what is fair, what is equitable and most importantly, what is in the best interests of the US government and the taxpayers. If we’ve done our job, the final RFP will represent a high-value opportunity for our shareholders, our customers, and the American people.”

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Part II of this series will explore how aerospace companies translate customer requirements into a more detailed satellite system design as part of developing their proposal for a government contract.

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