Aerospace Corporations

views updated

Aerospace Corporations

For most of history, humankind has had to study space from on or near the surface of Earth. This meant that most of our knowledge was limited to what could be deduced from observations conducted through dust and light pollution and the distorting and degrading effects of Earth's atmosphere. No in situ study or direct analysis of materials from space (except for studies of meteorites ) was possible. These conditions changed drastically with the development of space technology. First machines, then humans, were able to enter space, beginning a new era in space study and exploration. This era has grown to include the exploitation of space for public and private purposes. Designing, building, and operating the systems that make this possible is the role of aerospace corporations of the twenty-first century.

Historical Overview

The characteristics of aerospace corporations and the current structure of the aerospace industry result from the numerous political and economic forces that have created, shaped, and reshaped it. The first of these forces, and the one responsible in large part for creating the aerospace industry, was the Cold War. As World War II came to a close, the uneasy alliance between Russia and the United States began to disintegrate. Leaders on both sides sought to achieve a military advantage by capturing advanced German technology and the scientists and engineers who developed it. This included the German rocket technology that created the V-2 missile, the first vehicle to enter the realm of space.

This competition was a precursor to the space race between the two superpowers, the United States and Russia. That competition began in earnest on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the 184-pound Sputnik, Earth's first artificial satellite, into an orbit 805 kilometers (500 miles) above Earth. This demanded a response from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and intelligence and scientific communities.

To develop the systems needed to engage in this competition, the U.S. government established contracts with existing aircraft and aeronautics companies. Martin Aircraft was the manufacturer of the B-26 Marauder, a World War II bomber. Its corporate successor, Martin Marietta, developed the Titan rocket that was used first as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) during the Cold War. The rocket was later modified to boost two astronauts in Gemini capsules into orbit during the space race. (Long after the end of the space race, the Cold War, and many years of storage, the Titan II ICBMs are being refurbished and modified for use as space launch vehicles to place DoD satellites into space.) The government turned to Pratt & Whitney, an aircraft engine manufacturer, to develop the first liquid hydrogen-fueled engine to operate successfully in space. It was used on the Surveyor lunar lander, the Viking Mars lander, and the Voyager outer-planet flyby missions. A derivative of this engine is used in the second stage of the Delta III satellite launch rockets.

The intelligence community was also interested in using space technology. The United States' first space-based overhead reconnaissance program, CORONA, began flight in 1959. It, too, relied on established companies. Lockheed, a prominent aircraft manufacturer, developed the launch vehicle's upper stage. Eastman Kodak (now Kodak) produced special film that would function properly in space and low-Earth-orbit (LEO) environments. General Electric designed and manufactured the recovery capsule to protect exposed film as it was deorbited and re-entered Earth's atmosphere for airborne capture and recovery.

The government's interest in, and contracts for, space systems also created new companies. TRW resulted from efforts to build the Atlas missile and the Pioneer I spacecraft, the first U.S. ICBM and satellite, respectively. Currently, commercial involvement in the aerospace industry is growing, but government involvement continues to be significant.

Space Systems Overview

Each space system is composed of a collection of subsystems, often grouped into segments. Typical groupings are the launch segment; the space segment; the ground, or control, segment; and the user segment. The launch segment includes the equipment, facilities, and personnel needed to place elements of the system into space. The space segment includes the spacecraft, other equipment, and personnel that are placed into space. The ground, or control, segment includes the equipment, facilities, and personnel that control and operate the spacecraft as it performs its mission. The user segment includes the equipment, facilities, and personnel using the products of the space system to accomplish other purposes. Aerospace corporations* are the source of virtually all of the equipment and facilities that these segments require. Moreover, these corporations frequently train or provide personnel to operate and maintain them.

The Launch Segment.

The most visible activity associated with space missions is usually the launch of the space elements of the system. Television and film coverage has often featured footage of the space shuttle with its large boosters gushing fire and smoke as it rises slowly into the sky. The launch vehicle and upper stages, along with the facilities, equipment, and team at the launch site and associated range, are part of the launch segment. The two U.S. aerospace corporations that provide the most frequently used large launch vehicles are the Boeing Company (Delta) and Lockheed Martin Corporation (Atlas and Titan). The United Space Alliance, which manages and conducts space operations and maintenance of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Space Transportation System (space shuttle), is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Other companies that provide launch systems include Orbital Sciences Corporation, which manufactures and operates small launch systems, the Pegasus (an air-launched rocket capable of placing more than 1,000 pounds in LEO), and the Taurus (a small rocket launched from a "bare" pad to minimize operating costs). Sea Launch is an international partnership that launches Russian-made Zenit boosters from a floating, oceangoing platform. Boeing, a 40 percent partner, manufactures the payload fairing , performs spacecraft integration, and manages overall mission operations. RSC Energia (Russia) provides the third stage, launch vehicle integration, and mission operations. KB Yuzhnoye/PO Yuzhmash (Ukraine) provides the first two Zenit stages, launch vehicle integration support, and mission operations.

Since the mid-1990s the industry has seen a number of newcomers, many with partially or fully reusable systems but so far without any space launches. These companies include Kistler Aerospace Corporation, Beal Aerospace Technologies, and several others with launchers using unique approaches, such as Rotary Rocket Company, Kelly Space and Technology, and Pioneer Rocketplane.

Most launch vehicles use liquid propellants, but some use motors with solid fuels. The large, white strap-on boosters straddling the rust-orange main fuel tank of the space shuttle are solid-fuel boosters, as are the strap-on motors used with the Atlas, Delta, and Titan. In addition, most upper stages that are used to propel systems to high orbits or even into interplanetary trajectories are also solid-fuel systems. Thiokol Corporation, Pratt & Whitney, and others make many of these motors.

The Space Segment.

The space segment consists of all the hardware, software, and other elements placed into space. Examples include spacecraft that orbit Earth, such as NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or an interplanetary probe, such as the Cassini mission to Saturn. Spacecraft used by humans, such as the space shuttle orbiter and the International Space Station, are also included. Even the smallest spacecraft are complex machines. They must operate with limited human interaction for long periods of time, in a very hostile environment, and at great distances. Designing, manufacturing, and testing these spacecraft can be very demanding and requires many specialized facilities and an experienced staff.

Some of the established leaders in this segment include Hughes Aircraft Company, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and TRW. Hughes is the primary manufacturer of communications satellites. Boeing is a major developer of spacecraft for the Global Positioning System (GPS), a space-based navigation system operated by the DoD.* Lockheed Martin's heritage includes support for missions studying every planet in the solar system (so far excepting Pluto). TRW has been a key contractor for spacecraft such as Pioneer I, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Defense Support Program ballistic missile warning satellites.

Relative newcomers to this segment include Spectrum Astro and Orbital Sciences Corporation. Spectrum Astro worked with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop Deep Space I, a new technology demonstrator. They are teamed with the University of California, Berkeley, to design and develop the spacecraft bus and to integrate and test the payload of the High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (HESSI) spacecraft. HESSI will investigate the physics of particle acceleration and energy release in solar flares , observing X rays and gamma rays . Orbital Sciences Corporation designs and manufactures small, low-cost satellites for LEO, medium Earth orbit (MEO), and geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) missions. They have developed, built, and launched more than seventy satellites delivering communications, broadcasting, imagery, and other services and information.

The Ground, or Control, Segment.

The ground, or control, segment is probably the least glamorous and least public element of any space system. Although it lacks the showmanship of a launch or the mystique of traveling through space, it is critical to mission success. This segment consists of all the hardware, software, and other elements used to command the spacecraft and to downlink , distribute, and archive science and spacecraft systems status data. This segment serves as a combined control center and management information system for the mission. Aerospace corporations build and often operate these systems.

Lockheed Martin Federal Systems manages a team of subcontractors to support the Air Force Satellite Control Network. This network provides command-and-control services for many DoD and other government space programs. Harris was responsible for the development, integration, and installation of the command, control, and communications system for the U.S. Air Force's Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (a DoD weather satellite). Orbital Sciences Corporation has been involved in the construction of most of the world's major nonmilitary imaging satellite ground stations. Orbital's commercial satellite ground stations are used to receive, process, archive, and distribute images of Earth acquired by remote-imaging satellites.

The ground/control segment functions are often similar for different space programs. For this reason, cost savings from combined, multifunctional ground/control systems can be significant. Lockheed Martin leads NASA's Consolidated Space Operations Contract to help combine operations for many of the current and planned space science missions.

The User Segment.

Although all segments of a space system are necessary, the user segment is the most important. It is here that the mission of a space program is achieved. The user segment consists of all the hardware, software, and other elements required to make use of the data. A very public example of user segment equipment is the GPS receiver. Many of these units are sold to campers, hikers, boaters, and others who desire an easy and accurate means of determining their location. The user segment is also where science data are processed, formatted, and delivered to the scientists and other investigators for study and analysis. The U.S. Geological Survey's Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) Data Center near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is a major scientific data processing, archive, and product distribution center for spacecraft, shuttle, and aerial land sciences data and imagery. Data are processed into usable formats and made available to researchers and other users. Many aerospace corporations perform further processing and formatting of EROS data to generate information for sale.

Cross-Segment Approaches

Most aerospace corporations design, develop, and operate facilities and equipment in more than one segment. Often a specific space program will have one aerospace corporation serve as a lead or prime contractor, managing or integrating the work of many other companies. The International Space Station provides an excellent example. Boeing is the prime contractor of a space station team that includes a number of partners. Major U.S. teammates and some of their contributions include: Lockheed Martin, providing solar arrays and communications systems; Space Systems/Loral, providing batteries and electronics; Allied Signal, providing gyroscopes and other navigational gear; Honeywell, providing command and data systems as well as gimbal motors ; and United Technologies, providing pumps and control valve assemblies.

One of the newest and more unusual competitors spanning all segments is SpaceDev. SpaceDev is a commercial space exploration and development company for small, low-cost, commercial space missions, space products, and affordable space services. It offers fixed-price missions using proven, off-the-shelf components and an inexpensive mission design approach.

Other Industry Roles

In addition to designing, developing, and operating space systems in and across the various segments, some aerospace corporations perform more focused roles, such as providing systems engineering and other technical assistance or producing subsystems, components, and parts for systems. Many of these corporations are not as readily recognized as other members of the aerospace industry.

Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance.

Systems engineering and technical assistance (SETA) is a role performed by a number of aerospace corporations. As a SETA contractor, an aerospace corporation may develop, review, analyze, or assess concepts and designs for space missions, programs, and systems. Typically, SETA contractors do not provide hardware for the programs they support. Instead, they provide valuable expertise and a viewpoint independent of those manufacturing the system's components. For example, Raytheon ITSS Corporation is the technical support contractor to the U.S. Geological Survey's EROS Data Center discussed previously. Science Applications International Corporation provides a variety of SETA services to NASA, the DoD, and some commercial space programs. Dynamics Research Corporation and OAO Corporation are examples of other companies that provide SETA support to NASA, the DoD, and aerospace prime contractors.

Parts, Components, or Subsystems Providers.

Another role for an aerospace corporation is that of parts, components, or subsystems provider. This category encompasses the greatest number of aerospace corporations. Many of these corporations provide a broad range of subsystems and components and may also manufacture complete spacecraft. Others specialize in a specific type of space hardware, software, or service. Space products from Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation include antennas, fuel cell systems, mirrors, pointing and tracking components (such as star trackers), and reaction/momentum wheels. Malin Space Science Systems designs, develops, and operates instruments to fly on unmanned spacecraft. Thermacore Inc. works on heat pipes for space applications. These pipes are used to move heat from one location to another with little loss in temperature. Analytical Graphics, Inc., produces a commercial computer program, Satellite Tool Kit, which possesses extensive space mission and system analysis and modeling capabilities.

Nonaerospace Corporations

Many corporations that support aerospace programs are not commonly recognized as members of the aerospace industry. Kodak, a world-famous film and camera manufacturer, has been involved with aerospace almost since the beginning. Kodak developed the special film used in CORONA's orbiting cameras to photograph Soviet missile sites, air and naval bases, and weapons storage facilities. Its charge-coupled device image sensors were used on NASA's Mars Pathfinder Rover, which visited Mars in 1997. Today, Kodak manufactures digital cameras used from space to capture images of Earth's surface. These images are of value to scientists, farmers, and many others. IBM, another well-known corporation, supports many aerospace programs. During the 1999 space shuttle mission that returned John Glenn to space, twenty IBM ThinkPads (notebook computers) were onboard.

Other "unsung heroes" of aerospace include insurance and finance companies that are growing in importance as the primary revenue source for aerospace corporations shifts from government to the commercial sector.

see also Getting to Space Cheaply (volume 1); Insurance (volume 1); Launch Vehicles, Expendable (volume 1); Launch Vehicles, Reusable (volume 1); Navigation from Space (volume 1); Reusable Launch Vehicles (volume 4); Satellite Industry (volume 1).

Timothy R. Webster


Burrows, William E. This New Ocean. New York: Random House, 1998.

Handberg, Roger. The Future of the Space Industry: Private Enterprise and Public Policy. Westport, CT: Quorum Books, 1995.

Heppenheimer, T. A. Countdown: A History of Space Flight. New York: John Wiley &Sons, 1997.

International Space Industry Report. McLean, VA: Launchspace Publications (biweekly).

Isakowitz, Steven J., Joseph P. Hopkins, Jr., and Joshua B. Hopkins. International Reference Guide to Space Launch Systems, 3rd ed. Reston, VA: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1999.

McLucas, John L. Space Commerce. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Ramo, Simon. The Business of Science: Winning and Losing in the High-Tech Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1988.

Space News. Springfield, VA: Army Times Publishing Co. (weekly).

Spires, David N. Beyond Horizons: A Half Century of Air Force Space Leadership. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997.

State of the Space Industry. Reston, VA: Space Publications (annual).

*In 2002, the leading U.S. aerospace corporations included Boeing, Hughes, Lockheed Martin, TRW, Raytheon, Orbital Sciences Corporation, and Spectrum Astro.

*The Global Positioning System consists of 24 satellites that orbit over 10,000 miles above Earth.