The HS376 Program–Dick Brandes

The HS-376 satellite was conceived on a street corner, but it didn’t become a waif. Indeed, it matured to become the most successful product lines to that point in the Space Group’s history.

In the late 1970’s (most likely 1977), two competitive procurements were scheduled in the near term. Canada’s Telesat company planned a K-Band comsat, ANIK-2. The newly formed Satellite Business Systems (SBS), a joint venture of Comsat Corp. and IBM, was planning its initial satellite purchase, also operating at K-Band. The power requirements of these satellites far exceeded what was available on the HS-333 configuration, the first Hughes product line design.

Under the leadership of Harold Rosen, a new design exploiting the large bay of the soon-to-launch Space Shuttle was being developed. This was a spin-stabilized configuration with a large circular solar panel sized to match the Shuttle bay diameter. The design was elegant in its simplicity, exploiting all the proven technology of Hughes’s many spinners, was simply deployed from the Shuttle by “rolling” it out, and was very cost-effective as a satellite and in its Shuttle occupancy, which determined launch cost. The large solar panel provided adequate power for all the relay type comsats we could foresee. Indeed, Marty Votaw , the chief engineer at Comsat Corp., declared that the Hughes design would sweep the competition for future comsats. (This configuration was ultimately used in the Leasesat Program).

As part of our pre-proposal activity. we set up a meeting with SBS management to describe and extol the merits of our design for their mission. Harold and I went to their headquarters in Washington D.C. and were pleased to see all their senior staff in attendance, including, notably their CEO. Harold gave the presentation in his usual low key, sincere, and persuasive manner.

After he finished, and the technical staff had their questions answered, the CEO gave us his view and it wasn’t at all ambiguous. He said we had developed a very clever, cost-effective design, but it wouldn’t work for SBS. Planning a system roll-out based on the Shuttle was too risky. While the Shuttle schedule fit SBS’s timeline, there was every reason to believe that NASA was being optimistic, and the schedule could slip beyond SBS’s need date. He then quoted a very large cost to SBS, in the millions , for every month of delay. We thanked him for his candor, and left the meeting feeling very chagrined.

So there we were, on a corner of K-Street, wondering out loud how to proceed in the competition. Harold was very impressed with the CEO’s estimate of delay cost. He saw no virtue in trying to change his mind about the Shuttle schedule. We had to figure a way to get more power on a satellite configured to fit on a Delta booster. Then, in a flash, he suggested constructing a second cylindrical solar panel around the basic panel, and deploying it downward once in orbit. I quickly saw that this was a superior approach to generating greater power than other schemes we had considered. (Assuming we didn’t want to jump to a 3-axis configuration). We agreed to immediately invest in an IR&D effort to demonstrate the deployment feasibility. That was accomplished well in time for the upcoming proposals. (Our return to SBS to brief the new configuration was met with nods of approval).

So we had a solid Delta based design which could also be launched from the Shuttle using the McDonnell Douglas Payload Assist Module (PAM). It was given the model number HS-376. But we still had to develop a strategy to win the competitions which would be strongly contested by others, notably RCA.

We looked at the future market for the HS-376 and saw a large number of potential sales. We figured to be non-competitive if we tried to recover the non-recurring costs in any one program. So an approach was taken to divide the non-recurring cost over three procurements, ANIK-C, SBS, and a TBD from a grab bag of future possibilities.

Selling this risky approach (what happens if we won only one of the competitions?) turned out to be not too difficult Alan Puckett was somewhat a riverboat gambler.

Our gamble paid off. We won both awards within weeks of each other. We ran the programs out of a joint program office to maximize efficiency. Alas, as in many other cases, we underestimated the nonrecurring costs significantly. The nut we had to recover in the future grew by tens of millions of dollars. And, of course, there was a lot of red ink on the table which Puckett was hardly pleased with.

But the HS-376 turned out to be a technical success pleasing our customers. We had to make it a commercial success. And we did. We almost ran the table on future procurements, winning programs for AT&T, Western Union, Canada’s ANIK-D, Galaxy, Mexico, Indonesia, and Brazil among others. In a few years we had delivered a return on investment (ROI) in excess 30%. So the idea born on a Washington street corner lived a good life.