Fairchild Space Co. builds first Md. satellite in years

AN 'IMPOSSIBLE DREAM'

December 04, 1991|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Correspondent

GERMANTOWN — An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun erroneously described the TOPEX satellite made by Fairchild Space Co. The satellite will measure peaks and valleys in the surface of oceans to better understand water currents. The article also incorrectly described the company's moves to gain new satellite contracts. Fairchild has invested more than $5 million in new equipment to increase its chances of winning that work.

The Sun regrets the error.

GERMANTOWN -- James Brown steps back from the towering spacecraft that he has guided through nearly every stage of development and says somewhat boastfully that from an orbit 830 miles above the Earth, it will be able to measure the peaks and valleys of ocean floors "to within 10 centimeters."

"That's about 4 inches," he adds for those not familiar with the metric system.

Mr. Brown is spacecraft manager for the $173 million TOPEX/POSEIDON ocean topography experimental satellite that was produced by Fairchild Space Co. at its plant off Interstate dTC 270 in Montgomery County.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

TOPEX, the first satellite made in Maryland since the lunar

landings of the early 1970s, represents an important strategic change for Fairchild Space Co. To grow and stabilize its employment, Fairchild Space wants to develop complete satellites, instead of simply building systems or components for satellites made by other companies.

And company officials are counting on TOPEX to boost their standing. TOPEX is a joint effort of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its French counterpart, Centre National d'Etudes Apatiales. In addition to furnishing some components of the satellite, France is supplying the launch vehicle.

Mr. Brown and his crew of engineers and technicians made final adjustments on the 3-ton spacecraft last month, preparing it for a long trip to Kourou, French Guiana, where it will be launched next summer atop an Ariane rocket.

Scientists are counting on using the satellite's measurements to create topographical maps of the floors of the oceans. Better understanding of the ocean's currents and other features, they feel, will help predict the weather. It also will help make working conditions on offshore structures, such as oil rigs, safer.

Construction of such a satellite is like pulling off "the impossible dream," says Larry P. Yermack, Fairchild's Space's 55-year-old president. He adds that while there is "an enormous sense of accomplishment" on the part of those associated with the program, they're not likely to rest easy until "the big bird" makes its way into orbit, unfolds its 11-foot-by-26-foot solar panel and proves that everything is working the way it was designed to perform.

At that time we plan "one hell of a party," says Mr. Yermack. "That's the first thing we'll do."

There will be good reason to celebrate. The direction of Fairchild Space Co., a division of Fairchild Space and Defense Corp., could rest on a successful launch of TOPEX.

"Your reputation is riding on every launch," says Mr. Yermack, who took over as president of Fairchild Space Co. earlier this year after a long career in satellite development with RCA Corp.

With the exception of TOPEX, Fairchild Space's business has been pretty much limited to the production of systems or components for satellites made by other companies. It has made systems for 24 major space programs, including the Solar Maximum Mission, Landsats 4 and 5, Gamma Ray Observatory and classified Department of Defense satellites.

While the construction of components is good business and not something the company wants to walk away from, Mr. Yermack is hoping that a successful TOPEX program will establish Fairchild as a prime contractor of satellites or at least put it in the position of teaming with another aerospace company in vying for such contracts.

Such programs can have a significant impact on an individual company. The TOPEX contract, for example, was a major factor in more than doubling Fairchild Space's sales to $105 million in 1988 from $46 million in 1987. The company's sales have stayed at about the 1988 level ever since.

It is hard to say if one line of the business is more profitable than the other, Mr. Yermack says. But he feels there are more financial safeguards in doing the entire job.

He compares satellite construction with building a car. He explains that if the cost of the engine design exceeds budget, there is a chance of making up the loss by coming in under cost on the design of the doors, transmission or other components.

Building the complete satellite would offer a similar kind of flexibility to control costs, he says.

Mr. Yermack thinks the time is right for the company to aggressively pursue more satellite work. "We are qualified" to serve as a prime contractor, he adds. "We have all the credentials. We've had a 100 percent success rate on everything we've put in orbit. TOPEX demonstrates what our people can do and do well."

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