Military funding for space programs has cloud of uncertainty

By John McHale
WASHINGTON, 14 May 2011. Designers of radiation-hardened electronics for space programs say the U.S. military market has a degree of uncertainty as the impact of impending cuts to the Department of Defense budget are still up in the air. Meanwhile they see strong opportunities in commercial satellites especially in Europe, while in the U.S. NASA's budget continues to shrink.
"There are still questions as to what will get funded when the Department of Defense (DOD) budget is finally approved by Congress," says Anthony Jordan at Aeroflex Colorado Springs in Colorado Springs, Colo. Jordan says he and his colleagues are wondering what will be left for satellites after the cuts are made. "Will the DOD have to trade-off intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities between satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)? Will congress fund the block buys per EASE in fiscal year 2012 or will single satellite appropriations continue. Overall funding seemed to have slowed with some programs not getting started and with others frozen at 2010 levels."

"The trend is less new design activities, but we're seeing orders for more copies of existing hardware designs," says Vic Scuderi, manager of satellite electronics for BAE Systems in Manassas, Va. "While this keeps our factory going, we as an industry are at risk that we may see less new technologies being fielded as development efforts are not funded due to budget considerations. A secondary concern is that our industry could be losing some of our talented engineers without new development programs being funded."
"With the current U.S. federal administration calling for defense budget cuts of $100 billion, programs will be cancelled, scaled down, or delayed," says Odile Ronat, discrete marketing manager at International Rectifier in El Segundo, Calif.
The budget has yet to be approved and currently the "military space market is strong as there is a lot of volume in classified programs," says John Bendekovic, director of aerospace and defense sales at Xilinx in San Jose, Calif. The majority of cuts that have been discussed regarding the U.S. DOD budget have not yet affected these programs."
The rad-hard market is a growth market, says Jim Salzman, director of technology and radiation effects at Texas Instruments' high reliability business unit in Dallas. "We've seen substantial growth over the last five years, especially as industry awareness of our rad-hard products has grown."
The military space market is trending up, says Doug Patterson, vice president of the military and aerospace business sector at Aitech in Chatsworth, Calif. 
"From a very high level vantage point, the rad-hard requirement has always been there but, because in the past silicon feature sizes on integrated circuits were comparatively large, gates took more energy to switch states, and RAM wasn't as dense, ICs therefore were inherently more rad-hard to single event effects (SEEs) for example," Patterson explains. "So now, with the advent of sub micron silicon process, and extreme density RAM, we will notice more and more that ICs will tend to not be as rad-hard as their predecessors, which means designing and mitigating radiation effects in the future will be more of a challenge, and hence trending up."
While the immediate future regarding U.S. defense funding may be unclear the civil and commercial space markets in the U.S. and Europe have a little more certainty -- both positive and negative.
"Domestically the space market for ASICs is somewhat stagnant especially with NASA's budget being cut," says Peter Milliken, director of semicustom products at Aeroflex Colorado Springs. However, "internationally things are going amazingly well with Europe booming due to the Iridium Next program.  
"Europe is making investments and is heavily engaging the rad-hard component community," Milliken continues.
Commercialized manned spaceflight is still in its infancy, but rad-hard companies are starting to see some activity in this area.
"Our computers and components are already on board some of these commercial space flight programs," BAE Systems' Scuderi says. "These programs continue to walk a fine line between lower costs and ever increasing requirements for rad-hard performance of their vehicles. While mission life is measured in minutes, risks continue to be at an all time high with humans riding atop a vehicle that must provide, for example, protection against single event upsets. To address this market, we have addressed cost challenges while finding ways to maintain the customer support."

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