National Symposium Tops Hectic Month for GPS in Space

Braxton Technologies. These are the professionals that accomplish the LADO, or Launch, Anomaly Resolution and Disposal Operations for the GPS constellation, and they manned a booth with their latest software up and running on GPS command and control (C2) terminals at the symposium. But the fun part was that the terminals controlled a very visible and full-motion overhead model GPS satellite complete with operating solar panels that sought the sun, and a motor so you could see the results of the commands you sent to the satellite, especially the Delta V maneuvers.

National Symposium Tops Hectic Month for GPS in Space
Apr 7, 2009
By: Don Jewell

The last few weeks have been a very busy time in the space world, especially for GPS:

  • Numerous space symposia were held around the globe, with the largest event being the 25th Annual National Space Symposium (NSS) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the Broadmoor Resort.
  • There was an international event, the Munich Satellite Navigation Summit in Germany, which was well covered in GPS World.
  • The USAF finally launched the IIR(M)-20 GPS payload with the L5 signal transmitter onboard.
  • General Dynamics showcased a new handheld computer/GPS receiver that wowed attendees at the 25th NSS, and I review it for you this month.
  • The Lockheed Martin (LMCO) GPS IIIA program easily passed significant milestones and is on or ahead of schedule — I spoke with the IIIA Program Manager, Dr. Don DeGryse. Can you say happily moving to the left?
  • Rumors were rampant at the NSS that the Boeing IIF payload #1, already at the Cape, hit some significant technical snags. Can you say still moving to the right?
  • Last, and certainly least of all, the United States Army ordered $87 million worth of obsolete U.S.-government-supplied DAGR, GPS handheld receivers on a contract vehicle that could sadly total as much as $450 million.

If this sounds like a lot to cover, it is, but “time waits for no man,” especially someone with a tale to tell, so off we go:

25th National Space Symposium

The National Space Foundation did it again, another truly outstanding event that more than 8,000 people attended. I have personally attended 21 of the 25 NSS events and they just keep getting better every year. The forums and speakers were even better than last year, and there were more companies represented in the grand exposition halls — yes, there is more than one — and it takes nearly the entire four days of the symposium just to get around to them all, if you do them any justice. I will only mention a couple of notable companies and products this month and then cover more in future columns.

Braxton Technologies

These are the professionals that accomplish the LADO, or Launch, Anomaly Resolution and Disposal Operations for the GPS constellation, and they manned a booth with their latest software up and running on GPS command and control (C2) terminals at the symposium. But the fun part was that the terminals controlled a very visible and full-motion overhead model GPS satellite complete with operating solar panels that sought the sun, and a motor so you could see the results of the commands you sent to the satellite, especially the Delta V maneuvers.

  1. Braxton had two ground control stations available and it was an impressive display. There were long lines all week, with those waiting ranging from grade-school kids to U.S. Air Force senior officers. Who said being a space cadet doesn’t have its moments?

The exciting and real-world part of the week for Braxton Technology came on March 24, when the company controlled the launch of the latest IIR(M)-20 GPS payload into MEO (or Medium Earth Orbit). Due in large part to Braxton’s excellent software and deep knowledge base, the launch went off without a hitch, and the payload appears to be working as planned. Of course, my hat is also off to Lockheed Martin and the United Launch Alliance as well as the GPS Wing for a successful launch that was fraught with a myriad of things that could have easily gone wrong. The payload and space vehicle (SV) have been earth bound long beyond their intended launch date, and the Delta II booster previously developed some serious third-stage separation problems. But in the end, the professionals prevailed and all was successful. Everyone involved deserves our thanks.

On NAVSTAR #63 the L1, L2 signals are being broadcast and the newest L5 civilian signal will be broadcast to the world for the first time on April 10. Yours truly will be in attendance at the Stanford Research International (SRI) facility in Menlo Park, California, to witness the reception of the L5 signal by the 46-meter (150-foot) diameter radio reflector antenna that has become known around the world as “The Dish.” As many of you know, the GPS constellation must successfully broadcast the L5 signal from MEO by the end of October or lose the frequency allocation, and the SRI “Dish” will help verify that signal transmission, so let’s keep our fingers crossed for success on the 10th.

The other item of note for Braxton Technologies is that they are now flying more GPS IIA satellites in LADO residual status(sounds like a backward child and the analogy has some degree of correlation) than ever before. Normally these valiant and tired GPS satellites would have been declared “over the hill” and boosted to a higher non-functional parking orbit, and any future contributions to the GPS constellation would be lost. Due to the forward thinking of leaders such as Colonel David Madden (USAF), the GPS Wing/CC and company, plus the operators at the 2 SOPS (the 2nd Space Operations Squadron, which is part of the 50th Space Wing at Schriever AFB), plus the capabilities of the Braxton Technologies LADO system, these satellites can now be brought back online if the need ever presents itself, and it well may.

GPS Constellation and Signals Available

Never before has the GPS constellation been so robust and so vulnerable in the same breadth of time. There are 31 GPS satellites, and payloads that have been declared healthy and are transmitting 31 PRNs for users on a global basis; and yes, it could easily be 32 or 36 or more, but that is another story and another excellent reason for awarding the OCX contract and bringing OCX online as soon as possible.

The GPS constellation now has seven payloads broadcasting “M” code, which is a special military-only code, with eight satellites being the magic number for minimal government receiver usability. This means that with eight M-code satellites in the constellation, there is a high probability that one will always be in view of a military user. Not enough for an M-code-only solution, but certainly a help for our warfighter, since the long-awaited M-code signal will be more jam and spoof resistant than the standard civilian signals.

There is now a satellite in orbit with an L5 payload, the second civilian frequency. Civilians can now theoretically use L1, L2C (codeless or semi-codeless), and L5, when it is broadcast, while the military and government users can theoretically use L1, L2, and the M-code. I say theoretically because I have not been made aware of a mobile receiver that currently is able to receive and processes all these signals; but I am told that any day now… Well, don’t hold your breath, but one day soon I will write a column dedicated to the advantages of software-defined receivers.

Then there is the discussion of freely available CA (Coarse/Acquisition) and the restricted PY (Precision) codes which I do not have the time or space to go into here, plus some recent discussions concerning signal and frequency splitting. Suffice it to say the GPS constellation has never been blessed with such potential capability, but at the same time it is at a critical juncture in its development because the current technically challenged ground-control segment better known as the Architecture Evolution Plan (AEP) has ceased evolving and will not allow users to take advantage of many on-orbit capabilities.

Many of the current on-orbit GPS satellites and payloads are long in the tooth and are labeled as being “single string” or close to failure, and we are now mightily dependent on the new and, hopefully, sometime soon-to-be-launched IIF GPS satellites from Boeing, but, as I’ve said many times, their future is far from certain. We should see a IIF launch by the end of 2009, but with the current rumored difficulties even that launch date is far from certain. And according to LMCO we probably won’t see a GPS IIIA satellite on orbit before 2014, which is the current schedule.

Indeed, the current ground segment control software, known as AEP, is best described as “a cul-de-sac” to quote a knowledgeable friend who should know, and the government is still trying to decide between two OCX or next-generation ground-control segment contractor teams led by Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. That decision should come no later than the August 2009 timeframe, and then we can finally get on with stabilizing and vastly improving the on-orbit GPS constellation.

The switch to OCX will be something the GPS user community will hopefully actually notice, unlike the AEP transition. Indeed, the AEP software is so benign it currently flies all GPS satellites as if they were designed 20 years ago and does not take advantage of many of the newer capabilities that exist on the LMCO IIR and IIR(M) payloads. So, without a doubt OCX is a must, and the sooner we see it the better for all users, especially our warfighters, who risk their lives daily and deserve nothing but our best.

GPS IIIA Program Status

This brings us to the next-generation GPS satellite program known as the GPS IIIA and my conversations with the LMCO GPS IIIA Program Manager, Dr. Donald G. (Don) DeGryse, who is also the vice president of navigation systems for Lockheed Martin. Don was gracious enough to give me a few minutes of his time during the NSS and then later during a fabulous dinner at the beautiful five-star Broadmoor Resort.

Dr. DeGryse was quick to say that the LMCO GPS IIIA program successfully passed an Integrated Baseline Review that validated the program’s technology, schedule, and cost baselines. The program will complete the 21st Space Segment PDR (Preliminary Design Review) on May 18. So far the total number of successful PDRs for the entire GPS IIIA program stands at 63 — on May 18 the program will have completed its 71st overall PDR. This is an impressive number of PDRs for any program. According to Don, “It aptly demonstrates Lockheed’s commitment to getting it right and to operational excellence.”

A couple of years ago, then undersecretary of the Air Force, the Honorable Dr. Ronald “Ron” Sega, a good friend who was also present at the NSS, wisely re-instituted a 1521B Military Standardization like process, better known to the world as the “back-to-basics approach.” According to Dr. DeGryse, LMCO has followed this process; hence the high number of PDRs and the laudable obsession with getting it right the first time.

Dr. DeGryse was also quick to give credit to the major subcontractors on the LMCO GPS IIIA team: General Dynamics in Scottsdale, Arizona, who has responsibility for the network subsystem, and ITT in Clifton, New Jersey, who builds the all-important payload subsystem.

When asked if LMCO was going to have an early delivery of the IIIA program. Dr. DeGryse reiterated that building in margin on high-technology programs is a must. While LMCO may be ahead of schedule currently, anything could happen, “a supplier glitch or a subcontractor failure, and the margin could disappear quickly.” So, according to Dr. DeGryse, LMCO is “simply building in margin while they can and…fully expect to deliver the first GPS IIIA SV and payload on schedule in 2014.”

While I always thought there were financial incentives built into the acquisition program to deliver the first few GPS IIIA SVs early, Don disabused me of that notion (evidently the incentives have been removed from the final version of the contract) and reiterated that the LMCO goal is to deliver a successful satellite and payload on schedule. He also reminded me that his agreement with Colonel David Madden at the GPS Wing is that “stable requirements and a stable budget equals success. There should be no new requirements for the GPS IIIA program.” This makes sense as the GPS III program’s overall procurement takes a three-tiered or block approach with a spiral development process incorporating more and more capabilities in each sequential segment, which are known as blocks IIIB and IIIC.

User Equipment

Now on to the warfighter’s desire for excellent user equipment. Alas, we are still in search of the elusive Perfect Handheld GPS Transceiver or PHGPST. Earlier in this column, I gave the U.S. Army a hard time, which they richly deserve, primarily for not listening to their warfighters, and certainly for procuring $87 million worth of DAGR GPS receivers that the soldiers may not even use. But just so you know this is not a knee-jerk reaction, I have done my homework.

In fact many of the Army personnel attending the NSS were quick to point out that although the DAGR is rarely used as a handheld GPS device by any soldiers, in actuality some of the new procurement DAGRs will replace older PLGRs and less-capable DAGR models. Many of the new DAGRs will be used primarily as embedded GPS devices where they work well, because the user does not have to interface with them. In the embedded mode, the DAGRs provide navigation, but mainly position, Blue Force Tracking (BFT), and timing information to other systems. As such the black-and-white screen, long time to first fix, and lack of useable maps — along with a less-than-friendly user interface — does not matter to the user, and so in this embedded mode they are acceptable, but there are certainly better alternatives.

The real sad part of this tale of woe is that the Army acquisition community and procurement agencies have apparently lost the bubble; they are not listening to their users, the warfighters, and subsequently it is the warfighters that are paying the price in more ways than one — as well as the American taxpayer, who is paying $1700 per unit for a handheld GPS device the warfighter doesn’t want and will likely never use as a stand-alone GPS device. Indeed, the warfighters are using Garmin units predominantly, but Magellan and Trimble units as well, and the government is also paying for many of those units. When they don’t, the warfighters purchase them on their own. The warfighters need, want, and deserve reliable 3G GPS equipment they can actually understand and interact with, as they do their 3G mobile phones, PDAs, and computers. Here’s a novel concept: Give the warfighters what they want and need and will use. This latest procurement reminds me of a quote by Laurence J. Peter,

“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.”

Unfortunately, the DAGR lost any status in the relevant world of military GPS handheld equipment long ago, but I digress, and so unfortunately has the Army GPS acquisition program. But I have faith in the U.S. Army and I know they can recover. And for the Army, the recovery should start by listening to the warfighters, the boots on the ground.

But all is not lost. Fortunately Colonel David Madden and the professionals at the GPS Wing have been listening to the users. Rumor has it they have a bailout plan of their own. As soon as they give me the details I will let you know.

By the way, one of those devices the warfighter likes and uses is a GPS handheld computer from General Dynamics (Itronix) known as the MR-1 (above), which I review this month.

Until next time, happy navigating.

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