Military Aerospace Technology Today is: Oct 22, 2006
Volume: 5  Issue: 2
Published: Oct 08, 2006

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This article was Originally Published on Feb 02, 2003 in Volume: 2  Issue: 1

Spectrum Astro

Interview with Dave Thompson

President and Chief Executive Officer

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Dave Thompson founded Spectrum Astro in 1988. The company builds satellites and advanced technology components and subsystems for such diverse space applications as ballistic missile defense, planetary exploration, space science, technology demonstration and communications. 

Prior to starting Spectrum Astro, Thompson was assigned to HQ USAF Space and Missile Systems Center and the USAF Office of Special Projects in a wide range of space system development capacities over a 10-year period.  Thompson is a 1978 distinguished graduate of the USAF Academy with a bachelor’s of science in electrical engineering and a 1981 graduate of Stanford University with a master’s of science in electrical engineering.

Q: How does Spectrum Astro continue to thwart the rampant cost-growth and cost-overrun problems that are pervasive in the aerospace industry?

A: We focus on establishing a firmly understood technical baseline when we bid and price a program. We know our real going-in costs. Then the trick is to get the engineering and software shoved out the door on schedule, because we already have the hardware costs tightly controlled from the start. We have a very comprehensive system that tracks those elements and holds people accountable throughout the program. We are not perfect, but I would say that we are bringing these jobs in about as close as they can be done and that has built a great track record of cost control at Spectrum Astro. 

Q: State your case for being able to advance from a technology development satellite manufacturer to a prime contractor on multi-satellite constellations.

A: The principles of space system analyses and design integration are the same, except instead of building one unit we will build a dozen or more. In many aspects, it is just more production people and a larger floor space for integration and test. Undoubtedly there is a larger systems engineering “glue” task and more mission-related analyses, so we beefed up our systems engineering staff and our domain knowledge of specific mission areas.

Q: In 2002, your company launched your sixth satellite (RHESSI) and submitted the winning proposal on NASA’s GLAST mission. To what do you attribute these achievements?

A: Spectrum Astro has established a set of principles and operating standards that routinely yield success and new work. We are presently constructing three more spacecraft, Swift and GLAST for NASA, both gamma ray observatories; and C/NOFS, the Communications and Navigation Outage Forecaster for the DoD Space Test Program and the Air Force. We are the spacecraft subcontractor under Northrop Grumman Space Technology (formerly TRW) on SBIRS Low, now renamed STSS.

Q: Your Missile Defense work has grown considerably since being awarded a SBIRS Low contract in 1999. What has your company learned from the experience on SBIRS Low?

A: The main things are the added depth in systems engineering and coordination on these larger-scale programs, and the best way to run a simulation-based development program. At the end of the day, I think we mastered these elements and that $281 million contract built a heck of an infrastructure that we can now apply to the follow-on and other hard problems.

Q: You are forming an industry team as the prime contractor on the Missile Defense Agency’s Targets and Countermeasures program. Why does a company of your size believe it’s the right one for this job?

A: We looked at Targets and Countermeasures and saw that the customer is asking for things like better cost and schedule control of the underlying elements. We are the leaders in tight cost and schedule control for complex aerospace hardware. We also looked at the relative physical and dollar costs of the hardware, and found nearly all of the target suites right in our sweet spot of low and medium-cost projects. Combined with the domain knowledge, modeling and simulation expertise that we gained on jobs like SBIRS Low PDRR, CEKV, and now NFIRE, we think T&C is a natural fit for us to lead. Plus, we intend to bring a bunch of new thinking to this effort. 

Q: Will Spectrum Astro be a player in Space Based Radar?

A: Absolutely, in a big way. We have performed 15 previous Space-Based Radar (SBR) studies, and we successfully bid the first round of Discoverer II; I thought we had a very innovative and capable system design for DII. Since then, we have worked to continuously improve and have hired more radar engineering expertise. We have worked on large, complex, network centric systems with MUOS, GPS-III, and the Transformational Communications Architecture (TCA) and will incorporate that technology as well. With our greater engineering depth and comprehensive modeling and simulation capability, we plan to win the ultimate SBR contract as the prime. 

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