New space challenge stalls retirement

January 23, 1995|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Writer

Tom Underwood was ready to retire when he got a phone call that gave the 56-year-old veteran NASA engineer the chance to turn back time.

It came from a top executive of AlliedSignal Technical Services Corp. in Columbia and included the offer of a job.

But it was no ordinary job offer. It would give the graying grandfather the chance to relive the time when the U.S. space program was in its infancy and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, was a national hero.

Allied hired Mr. Underwood to head its efforts to land a big contract to develop and install the ground equipment that will collect data from the Taiwanese National Space Program's first satellite, scheduled to be launched in spring of 1998.

"It's so exciting," Mr. Underwood says of his new job. "You look at the Taiwan space officials, and they have that gleam in their eye, that excitement that I felt, and all the other NASA people felt, when I first joined the space program 32 years ago.

"They are putting in the long hours needed to make things happen, the same as we did so long ago. There's no question about it, it has re-energized me."

But to get in on the ground floor of a second country's entry into the space age was not easy.

In winning the $31.6 million contract -- one of the largest development pacts in Allied Technical Services' history -- it had to beat out such industry giants as Martin Marietta Corp. and Loral Corp., companies many times its size.

The Columbia-based unit of AlliedSignal Inc. has about 2,300 workers and posted sales of about $400 million in 1993, the latest year for which results have been reported. AlliedSignal, headquartered in Morris Township, N.J., had sales of $11.8 billion in the same period.

Allied Technical Services is the only part of AlliedSignal that does not produce a product. It provides technical and engineering services to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Air Force and the Navy. One of its big service contracts is with the Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, where 1,500 of its employees track satellites and space shuttle launches.

"We realized we were going up against the big guys," Mr. Underwood said. "Most people felt we were a long shot at best. We knew we needed to come up with a good team to overcome the reputations of these companies."

Allied didn't have all the talent it needed, but Mr. Underwood knew where he could find it. It was scattered among the technology companies around the Capital Beltway.

One of the first things he did after joining Allied in October 1993 was to begin assembling a corporate team with the necessary expertise.

He brought in Global Science and Technology Inc., the Greenbelt company experienced in building service centers used to collect data from satellites and putting it into a form for scientists to use.

Another partner is Integral Systems Inc. Based in Lanham, Integral's job is to develop the software needed to send commands to the satellite and to track its position in orbit.

The third Maryland partner, TeleSystems International Inc., of Gaithersburg, will be responsible for the transfer of software engineering technology to Taiwanese industry. Under terms of the contract, all new or modified software must be developed by Taiwanese companies.

Such teaming arrangements, Mr. Underwood said, are not unusual. But he feels that the partners brought more than technical expertise to the table. "They also taught us a lot about the customer's culture," he said.

Two of the corporate partners are headed by people from Taiwan. They are Chieh-san Cheng, president of Global, and Song H. Yu, the president of TeleSystems.

"One of the things they taught us was that you don't ever want to say 'no' to the Taiwanese. You can tell them 'It's a difficult job to do, and there may be some problems,' but you never say 'no.' They don't know how to say no. They generally try to accommodate you."

The team also learned, as it went through more than two years of negotiations, to be sensitive to the education levels of the Taiwanese space officials on the program.

"Most of them had doctorate degrees and they are sensitive to their education background," Mr. Underwood said. "We had heard that some of our competitors were very aggressive in their marketing efforts and they tried to tell them how to do their jobs," he continued. "That's a no-no. Here in the U.S. you can tell a company 'You don't know what you're doing,' but you don't do it there."

Mr. Underwood said some of the partners were prepared to bid for the Taiwan work on their own, "but we decided it would be a stronger bid if we combined forces."

The strategy worked. It has opened the door for the team to capture even more work in the future as Taiwan launches more satellites.

In addition to designing and developing the satellite tracking system, the contract calls for Allied and its team to operate the system for three months after the first scheduled satellite launch.

That could be an emotional day for Mr. Underwood, who has been involved with the U.S. space program since he joined NASA in 1962 after graduating from Clemson University.

One of his first jobs was to work on the equipment that would monitor John Glenn's blood pressure and heartbeat during that first orbital flight in 1962.

Before joining Allied, Mr. Underwood was program manager for NASA's $600 million effort to build ground stations for the space agency's latest tracking and data relay satellite.

His countdown to retirement has been put on hold.

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