Carlsbad-based ViaSat Inc. is betting much of its future on a new satellite costing more than $500 million.
The only time you’re likely to get a glimpse of the satellite, called ViaSat-2, is if you go behind the guarded doors of Boeing Co.’s El Segundo satellite factory, two counties north of San Diego. ViaSat arranged for a small group of reporters to visit on Jan. 10.
Boeing (NYSE: BA)’s factory is a 1-million-square-foot compound with ceilings several stories high. Walls and ceilings are white. To go out on the floor, visitors have to cover up, with hair bouffants, smocks and safety glasses. A group of 10 factory tourists looks like a bunch of bakers. A ViaSat (Nasdaq: VSAT) executive wears amber-colored Kapton tape over his metal wedding ring.
The factory has several stations where Boeing employees subject its satellites to noise and vibration, heat and cold. One set of industrial heaters is described for visitors as “a big toaster.”
ViaSat-2 occupies a spot on the factory floor among other satellites set to go into space. The Carlsbad company’s satellite is a 25-foot-high cube, a vision of shiny foil and dull foil, and what appear to be plastic and fabric. The satellite is “buttoned up” — in its most compact form for its rocket ride into space. Its solar arrays are folded tight against the satellite bus (or body) like some huge Japanese folding screen. Once extended, the solar arrays will stretch half the length of a football field. The bird weighs 14,000 pounds.
“It’s like a garage,” says the boss, Mark Spiwak, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International. “There’s lots of satellites.” The reason the factory is so packed? Several commercial launch systems are down, and the bottleneck in production is right here, on factory floors such as Boeing’s.
“It’s good from a tour standpoint,” Spiwak allows, “but it’s not what we want.”
On the way back the group of white hatted bakers takes in the sights, including a full-sized model, high on the wall, of an early three-axis satellite. Beep beep! A vehicle a little larger than a golf cart meets the group. The cart trails a long boom behind it. It is a mobile X-ray machine, complete with a red light and a sign indicating danger when the light is flashing. But the red light is off, and visitors soon leave the strange world of the aerospace factory floor.
ViaSat and Boeing plan to ship ViaSat-2 to the South American country of French Guyana soon. Launch is scheduled for March or April. If all goes as planned, ViaSat-2 will be operating in the fourth quarter of 2017.
The Jan. 16 issue of the San Diego Business Journal will have more about ViaSat and its ViaSat-2 venture.