Making a revolutionary new satellite starts with a couple simple questions: what problem are we trying to solve and how do we solve it? The answers often start with a strong partnership.
Founded shortly after September 11 with the goal of finding solutions for emerging national security challenges, Millennium Space Systems has established a reputation for designing and building small satellite prototypes and constellations that test new concepts and technologies in faster-than-normal timelines. And strong customer partnerships have been key to the company’s success.
“Rather than asking for a specific satellite design, our customers come to us with a problem they want to solve,” said Jason Kim, CEO of Millennium Space Systems. “We listen to our customers, understand their needs, ideas, and visions, and then work hand-in-hand to figure out the best solution to the problem. It’s a true partnership.”
Millennium’s partnership-first approach continues to yield results, 20 years after its founding.
The Whiteboard Sketch — From Concept and Design to Development
In early 2020, the company had demonstrated new technologies that could be a good fit for a national security mission. This prompted a conversation between Doug Hulse, a program manager at Millennium, and a government customer about using the recently tested technology on a new satellite.
“We were talking next to a crate with a satellite inside, and the next thing you know, we were sketching ideas for a mission on a notebook on top of that crate,” said Hulse. “It was an idea-on- a-whiteboard moment. This is a classic example of how partnerships with our customers begin – we start throwing ideas onto a problem and come up with solutions together.”
Whether it starts on a notebook or a whiteboard, these early partnerships give customers a high level of flexibility to tailor a solution to their mission.The results are innovative, faster-built, often less costly systems than industry competitors.
A close customer collaboration at the concept and design phase of a project is key.
“Often times, customers don’t yet know what they want at the beginning of a project, so the idea is to figure it out together,” said Hulse. “It’s essential that we’re both invested in conceptualizing the solution. For us, the goal is to create a satellite that flies and operates successfully. For the customer, they want the time and money invested to lead to a successful mission.”
As the program advances from concept and design through development, the partnership stands on two main pillars. One, there is the baseline that establishes how the program is run: regular meetings, formal status reports, financial reporting – standard program management requirements to make sure everyone is on the same page. Then there are the relationships with individuals at the program management offices.
“We speak to our customers pretty much every day,” said Hulse. “I make sure they know about any issues before they’re on a formal report. It’s all about making sure we have open communication, build trust and, together, make the mission succeed.”
The mission, as much as the satellite itself, is front and center throughout the development of the program. For Millennium engineers, program managers and leaders, the customer’s mission is one of the main drivers.
“Whether we’re reinforcing our national defense or advancing a NASA science project, the mission is a motivator that goes beyond mere business,” said Hulse. “We’re helping advance critical missions that make the world a better, safer place – it’s not hard to get excited about that."
Ground Control to Smallsat
Actual mission operations might not start until the satellite is on orbit, but the mission ops teams are involved early on, as the mission gets mapped out. They help create the ground software, design the procedures that start up the satellite and commence its mission, outline how the satellite will operate day-to-day to complete its mission, and define how to decommission the vehicle.
“We sit down with the customer to answer questions on how things will operate and get feedback on what they want to see, how often they want to see data and have us communicate with the satellite, and how to report any issues with the satellite or the ground network,” said Stu Patterson, Mission Operations engineering team lead. “All of that is worked out well ahead of time so when it’s time to fly, everybody knows that to expect. This is how we approach partnerships at Millennium.”
Operating the satellite is also a close collaboration. On some programs,
customers operate the satellite independently, leaning on Millennium for virtual support. Other times, customers will rely on Millennium to operate the satellite from their El Segundo, California, headquarters, and simply receive the data. And in some cases, Millennium’s technical experts will sit side-by-side with customer operators at their mission operations facility.
“We’re always a phone call away – or sitting down next to each other – to make sure the spacecraft is working optimally and performing its mission,” said Patterson. “The partnership continues until the day the satellite is decommissioned. And sometimes, it might continue beyond that.”
The National Security-Commercial Sweet Spot
Millennium’s experience in space qualifying commercial technology for national security missions positions the company for commercial ISR and communications constellations. Their partnership style will also be well suited for those missions.
“We don’t see our partnership style necessarily changing when it comes to commercial customers,” said Hulse. “We will still seek to partner early on and find a solution to the problem they are trying to solve. And working with commercial customers might actually provide more and better-value alternatives for national security missions.”
In a satellite market where traditional aerospace contractors and new venture-backed companies compete for both government and commercial contracts, Millennium’s operating model is a unique hybrid of the two.
“We are faster, are able to infuse and refresh new technologies quickly, and are affordable – similar to how newer space companies approach the market,” said Hulse. “But we also have the expertise and security standards to serve the national security space community, something that a lot of newer space companies don’t have. We bring the best of both worlds.”
All in the (Boeing) Family
Since Boeing acquired Millennium in 2018, the two companies have been collaborating on multiple programs, both government and commercial. Leaders from both companies have been working to partner on LEO and MEO constellations based on Millennium’s small satellite capabilities. As this takes shape, Boeing continues to work closely with their satellite customers to shape product roadmaps for a total solution.
“We have a great opportunity to partner with our customers and tailor the right capability for their missions,” said Josef “Joe” Bogosian, vice president of Business Development for Boeing Commercial Satellite Systems International. “Millennium brings their highly manufacturable smallsat with a focus on rapid delivery, and we bring our payload expertise and broader Boeing experience with high-rate production.”
Growing Millennium’s manufacturing capacity is an important piece of the constellation puzzle. Boeing recently announced a new high-throughput Small Satellite Factory within its 1 million-square-foot satellite facility in El Segundo, California.
Boeing has a long history in the satellite market, with more than 300 satellites delivered and a legacy of building advanced digital payloads. As customers look to deploy new systems across multiple orbit domains, Millennium expands the portfolio of constellation capabilities that Boeing can offer.
To learn more about Millennium Space Systems, please visit millennium-space.com