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Pentagon’s space partner eyes new frontiers

Aerospace Corp.'s warren of low-rise office buildings in El Segundo offers little clue to the work that goes on behind the double security doors, where thousands of scientists and U.S. Air Force officers toil in secrecy.

The company, which gets almost all of its funding from the Pentagon, is responsible for overseeing many of the nation’s most classified programs, including the development of multibillion-dollar spy satellites and rockets that lift them into space.

“I’ve spent most of my life keeping secrets in this business,” said Joseph F. Wambolt, 76, a rocket propulsion engineer who joined Aerospace the year it was founded 50 years ago and still won’t divulge what he’s working on, even to his wife. “At Aerospace, we’ve always tried to keep a low profile.”

But the days of lying low may be over.

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Wanda M. Austin, president and chief executive of Aerospace, said she saw the El Segundo-based research center taking on new roles that could increasingly bring it out from under the shroud of secrecy.

Under President Obama’s proposal to outsource more space missions to private ventures, the government will want more oversight of missions carried out by private businesses, such as Hawthorne’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX.

Aerospace could be the organization to do that, Austin said.

“There’s a new energy and a new direction for space,” she said. “We’re excited about the promise that the industry holds for us.”

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Aerospace is neither a defense contractor nor part of the Air Force, which manages military space programs.

Rather, Aerospace is a federally funded brain trust for the Pentagon’s $26-billion space program, which far exceeds NASA’s budget of $18 billion and has increased almost 90% since 2000. Although it’s not well known outside defense circles, it is regarded as one of the nation’s most important assets.

Aerospace scientists oversee the technical side of contracts awarded to defense firms to make sure the work is being done properly. A separate Pentagon agency audits the contracts.

The firm also provides consultation and advice to both the government and the defense industry on how to best develop spacecraft. In all, 87% of its budget comes from military contracts and the rest from civilian government agencies such as NASA.

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“Aerospace is the glue to the Pentagon’s space infrastructure,” said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a website for military policy research. “It’s an independent voice that’s has become a vital component to national security.”

Despite proposed cutbacks in Pentagon spending, Aerospace’s budget increased to $868 million last year — its largest — and Austin believes it will be busier than ever in the coming years.

In addition to its potential new role for private space ventures, the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO, the umbrella organization that operates spy satellites, has said it’s set to begin “the most aggressive” launch schedule it has undertaken in 25 years. That is expected to keep Aerospace engineers and scientists busy for a while.

The research center was formed in 1960 at the height of the Cold War as a way to avoid a potential conflict of interest. At the time, a technology company was about to begin development of a spacecraft, but it was also advising the Pentagon on what kind of space systems it should consider funding.

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That company, Thompson Ramo Wooldridge Inc., or TRW, spun off its Space Technology Laboratories, the predecessor to Aerospace.

Simon Ramo, co-founder of TRW, which was later acquired by Century City-based Northrop Grumman Corp., said he wanted to begin making space hardware but that it posed an obvious conflict of interest for the company.

“We couldn’t tell the Air Force what to do in space on one side of our mouth, and then on the other side tell them that we’d build it for them,” Ramo said.

Since it was formed, Aerospace has built a reservoir of talent that’s more comparable to a major university. Aerospace has produced more than 68,000 scientific papers on a wide variety of space-related topics. Its staff now features 831 scientists and engineers with doctorate degrees.

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Aerospace also helps the Air Force monitor rocket launches. Engineers pore over data and the fine print to make sure everything is in its right place. A misplaced decimal point can turn billions of dollars’ worth of intricate hardware into blazing debris in just a fraction of a second.

The company’s 41-acre campus sits across the street from Los Angeles Air Force Base, which oversees military rocket development. The two complexes are linked by a 135-foot bridge over El Segundo Boulevard.

Aerospace recently built a $66-million building with a space launch center in the basement. Resembling NASA’s mission control center in Houston, the facility allows Aerospace engineers to keep real-time tabs on rocket launches at Cape Canaveral, Fla., or Vandenberg Air Force Base. They monitor incoming data streams looking for anomalies and can order the launch to be scrubbed if there are any.

Since Aerospace has kept a close watch, the Pentagon has had a string of 65 consecutive successful launches stretching back to 1999.

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“That kind of reliability is unprecedented,” said Gary Payton, who last week retired as deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs.

It may cost $20 million to $30 million more in launch costs for the type of “mission assurance” that Aerospace provides, but it’s well-worth it, he said. “I would like to save money on a launch. But if the launch vehicle fails, I splash a $2-billion satellite.”

In May, the Air Force launched the first of a new generation of GPS satellites, part of an $8-billion upgrade designed to make the system more reliable, more accessible and much more accurate. A failure could have set the GPS upgrade back a year or more and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Aerospace has the kind of expertise to help ensure our launches” are successful, Payton said. “It’s a brain trust that’s unmatched.”

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william.hennigan@latimes.com


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