The revealing and detailed New York Times story, “Failure to Launch: In Death of Spy Satellite Program, Lofty Plans and Unrealistic Bids,” will likely mean a boost in confidence for commercial satellite imagery companies. The story reveals that the Future Imagery Architecture program, that went to Boeing instead of incumbent Lockheed Martin, wasted more than $10 Billion dollars of government money before it was ultimately scrapped.
The story details the failures of both the contractor and government overseers in a project with ambitious technological goals, a constrained budget and short time table.
Boeing received the $4 Billion contract award in 1998, and by the time the project was scrapped in Sept. 2005, the cost estimates had reached $18 Billion.
Among the failure points mentioned in the article are:
- Input from numerous intelligence and military services on satellite sensor design that resulted in technical specifications that could not be built
- A new government policy of shifting control of big military projects to contractors
- A brain drain of talented young engineers who don’t see space technology as a top-tier career choice
- The governments proclivity to award space contracts to new bidders, who write more creative proposals without the backing of experience
- Underfunding of the project, coupled with tight oversight on spending
- A number of substandard parts delivered by subcontractors
To date the U.S. governments space-based imagery satellite constellations stand on shaky ground. Lockheed Martin has been tasked with delivering an updated photo satellite with delivery slated for 2009. Last year a prototype Lockheed satellite reached orbit, but failed to communicate with ground control, rendering it useless.
The recent success of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-1 satellite, and the coming launch of the GeoEye-1 satellite, speak volumes about the capabilities and performance of the commercial remote-sensing industry. When space imagery is a commercial and public enterprise, cost overruns and unrealistic technology requirements are not an option.