John E. Williams, President & CEOLooking down from 250 miles above Earth’s surface, a commercial supply ship bound for the International Space Station is ready to launch from the eastern shore of the U.S. As the hours and minutes tick down to launch, the ground team and everybody associated with the mission are filled with anticipation and hope. The excitement is palpable and the future lies ahead.
These early moments in a mission might be most thrilling, but every second that follows is arguably just as critical. Universal Space Network (USN)—a company that specializes in space operations and ground network services (GNS)—have made it their business to live in the details of those seconds. Founded by aerospace pioneer, Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr., USN reflects his leadership, innovative spirit and dedication to excellence. From the company’s network management centers in Horsham, PA, and Chantilly, VA, to their global network of ground stations, USN is the model for progressive engineered solutions with a successful track record.
The company’s commitment to quality service begins long before a rocket roars to life. “From the moment we are called on to prepare for launch, our multidisciplinary teams build partnerships with the customer to ensure that the critical communications services will be there when needed,” affirms John E. Williams, President and CEO, Universal Space Network. “Success in space, particularly defense, often hinges on ground control and communications. Thus we’ve built a worldwide network of tracking stations and network control centers to provide cost-effective operations and telemetry, tracking and control (TT&C) services,” he explains. Riding on these capabilities and by demonstrating its ability to serve customer needs in an innovative and cost-effective manner, USN has become a leader in the space and defense communications and TT&C markets. The company works in partnership with key industry players and innovators in defense and aerospace, to discover new and exciting ways in which a network can be applied to a variety of satellite applications.
Enhancing Competitive Advantage and Reducing Costs
Investments are worth protecting, especially space assets; and USN’s solutions are tailored to offer the protection. The company’s global network of ground stations and management centers provide reliable, cost-effective operation and maintenance of space assets—from critical launch day operations to daily on-station support and satellite state-of-health checks. “Our services are fully supported by teams of engineers and top professionals with access to the resources and facilities needed to get the job done. We offer built-in redundancies and back-up, so that clients’ service isn’t just continuous, it’s confident,” explains Williams.
USN’s commercial solutions provide a cheaper but functionally equivalent capability for customers. “We use a lot of automation and technology in our commercial business model and offer solutions that cost a fraction of in-house defense and military solutions,” reveals Williams. “Research and development, military and defense, scientific discovery, commercial communications and Earth-monitoring missions have benefited from our services,” he claims. For instance, consider USN’s engagement with its long-time anchor customer, NASA. Today, NASA’s Near Earth Network is 50 percent commercial and 50 percent government. USN and Swedish Space Corporation (SSC)—USN’s parent organization—are over half of that commercial piece. However, a decade ago, NASA owned all of it and they had issues with on-going budget reductions. They were trying to figure out how they could support their mission on all orbits with less money and USN had the answer. NASA outsourced part of their critical work to USN and the latter provided the service for half the price that it took when the network was entirely retained by the government. NASA chose to retain some internal capabilities, which provided for needed flexibility. As a result, NASA and the tax payers reaped in significant savings over previously all-government solutions, at the same time retaining some of their own capabilities to carry out the mission. Presently, in association with USN, the U.S. Air Force is considering how to reap the same benefits that NASA started enjoying a decade ago for its Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN).
USN uses a strategy of long-term teaming with key commercial companies as a way to enter markets, including the defense market. A classic example of this is the company’s association with Boeing—USN’s biggest commercial partner. By building a new gateway for the Global Express program flying on Inmarsat-5 and assisting the client in their new xenon-ion electric propulsion Launch and Early Orbit (LEOP) missions, USN has grown its presence in the defense industry.
We offer built-in redundancies and back-up, so that clients' service isn’t just continuous, it’s confident
State-of-the-Art Management Centers that Power Operations
Over the course of time, USN has moved the operations from a hands-on man-in-the-loop to almost hands-off man-in-the-loop. “This means that we can control more assets with fewer people and make operations more scalable,” claims Williams. This reduces the opportunity for human operator error and drives higher network performance for customers.
USN’s solutions are functionally rich—not only because they are end-to-end, but also they are extremely customizable to the customer needs. “Spacecraft don’t come in a one-size-fits-all manner; each one is unique,” inputs Williams. “What is required is to talk to customers about the changes needed from one mission to another,” he adds. USN works with the customer to tailor the implementation of their mission onto the network to ensure its success. “In addition, we offer end-to-end solutions as a turn-key provider of satellite command/ control and payload downlink services,” affirms Williams. “Using all the capabilities, the customer can access the network through communications connection at the network management center and then we provide the rest of the connection to the antenna—wherever it is in the world. We perform this through resilient and sometimes redundant communication paths,” he explains.
The company has also made significant strategic investments to increase network defense capabilities and address the ever-growing cyber threat. “Our National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) investments are good for all of our users, but particularly are targeted for the defense customers,” claims Williams. In addition, last year the company built a state-of-the-art network management center in northern Virginia to offer defense customers with increased capabilities and security. With outsourcing of defense capabilities like the AFSCN in mind, the new network management center allows a small number of operators to control a large number of antennas simultaneously. “We’re really proud of our new state-of-the-art Chantilly Virginia Network Management Center. From the beginning, Chantilly was designed to improve USN’s ability to maximize operator effectiveness and help customers fly their missions,” affirms Williams. The facility also increases USN’s ability to support customer LEOP missions. “LEOP is the most critical and fragile period of a spacecraft’s life and is a mission that USN has embraced as core to our service offerings,” reveals Williams.
USN, together with its parent company SSC, today offers the only all-altitude commercial multiuser network for defense and other sectors in the world. “To better position ourselves to support polar orbits, we embarked on a growth and consolidation initiative that moves assets from other sites into a central site in Alaska,” notes Williams. The result is greater overall capacity, reduced costs, and timelier customer support for aerospace and defense customers.
“USN is a growth business with tremendous opportunities on the horizon,” affirms Williams. To prepare for that, the company has made targeted investments in capabilities. “We will continue to expand our services by adding capacity to the network through expansion of our own infrastructure, ” he reveals. New partnerships with existing stations around the world, and efforts to extend and leverage existing technology and system capacity are also in the cards.
“The biggest upcoming opportunity will be the U.S. Air Force capitalizing on the commercial alternative, in terms of cost savings and increased capabilities and resiliency,” says Williams. “But, if you are watching the space business, there is an equally exciting trend going on with small satellites providing new and innovative capabilities,” he adds. USN and SSC are working to deploy new capabilities to support this rapidly evolving segment. “So, in a few years, I see USN, along with SSC, as the leading provider of these types of space services to the world,” concludes Williams.