Home >> May 2010 Edition >> Executive Spotlight... Chris Hoeber
Executive Spotlight... Chris Hoeber
Senior Vice President of Systems Engineering and Program Management Space Systems/Loral
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hoeber photo ssl sm 0510 Christopher F. Hoeber has more than 35 years of industry experience and he leads the systems engineering and program management groups as well as oversees all of the company’s research and development programs. Mr. Hoeber has a broad base of experience in systems test and engineering, and program and functional management — he was the leader of the systems engineering team that developed SS/L’s geostationary satellite platform, the modular 1300.

He was also the program manager for the Superbird satellites, built for Space Communications (SCC) of Japan, which were the first implementation of the 1300 platform. Before being named to his current position, Mr. Hoeber was vice president of business development for SS/L and before that he was the chief engineer of the company.

Before joining SS/L in 1975, Mr. Hoeber was with Hughes Space and Communications Corp. for five years, where he led a group that performed payload testing of Intelsat IV and the first generation of domestic communications satellites.

In 2009 Mr. Hoeber was named a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). He is also a member of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE) and is a member of both the AIAA Technical Committee on Communications, and the board of directors of the California Space Authority. He has written extensively on the communications satellite industry and has contributed to a number of studies of export control and technology transfer. He is an AIAA Distinguished Lecturer.

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SatMagazine (SM)
Mr. Hoeber, would you please explain to our readers your duties with Space Systems/Loral as the Senior Vice President of Program Management & Systems Engineering? That’s quite an expansive title!

Chris Hoeber
Space Systems/Loral is the world’s leading provider of GEO commercial satellites and I like to believe that I have contributed to this success. Our strategy has been to design and build satellites using a standard flight-proven modular platform, which can be reconfigured for specific applications and for specific customers. I am responsible for the successful completion of all of our satellite programs and contracts, from a business perspective, and I also oversee the company’s research and development program.

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Why did you decide a move to SS/L was the correct step to take?

Chris Hoeber
I moved to SS/L almost 35 years ago, when it was Philco-Ford. I saw a relatively small organization that was very entrepreneurial and I saw an opportunity to get in at the beginning and make a difference. With 20-20 hindsight, I can tell you that I made the right decision at the correct time. After I had been at Philco for a year (it had then been renamed Aeroneutronic Ford), we won the Intelsat V Program and I joined the Systems Engineering team, responsible for the communications payload. Since that time, I have had the opportunity to contribute, at many levels, to SS/L becoming the player in the commercial satellite industry that it is today.

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You worked at Hughes Space and Communications working on the 1G of domestic COMSATS. What was the impetus for your involvement in those programs?

Chris Hoeber
I left college in 1970 and my wife and I moved across the country to start a new life. To make a long story short, after we had settled into our apartment in southern California, my promised job fell through and I began knocking on every door within a 50 mile radius looking for work. I got an interview at Hughes in El Segundo and my interviewer arranged for a tour of the Hi Bay where I saw the prototype Intelsat IV spacecraft. I still remember coming home and saying, “I fell in love with what I saw — I know what I want to do.”

My first assignment was to write the test software for Anik A, the first domestic comsat. But before I could do that, I had to write an interpreter so that the brand new Hewlett Packard mini-computer could interpret HP Assembly language. The test computer had 16 K 16-bit words of memory and we communicated to it through a 10 bps teletype machine. The test job was perfect for me — within a couple of years I had learned something about every aspect of the spacecraft design and operation. That knowledge, along with my natural curiosity, has provided the knowledge and experience that I have depended on for my entire career.

With 35 years of satellite industry experience, how different is the SATCOM world today than when you started your career? Where do you see our industry heading over the next year or two? In five years?

Chris Hoeber
Satellites have changed dramatically in the 35 years that I have been in the industry. They are much bigger and more powerful than they were in 1975 and they are much more capable. They are also much more reliable. As they are bigger and more powerful, they can do many more things so the services that they deliver have also changed significantly.

In the late 1970s, satellites were used predominantly for telephony and broadcast television. Satellites broadcast only to huge ground stations that then delivered the signals to the television networks and to other organizations that further distributed the data. In the early 1990s, with the advent of Direct-to-Home (DTH) television, the paradigm changed so that satellites frequently broadcast directly to the consumer at their homes and offices. Now we are seeing the next wave in satellite technology which delivers information to mobile devices. Sirius XM Radio is a good example of this, as is our customer TerreStar, which has a satellite just now going into service that provides phone service to typical PDA-size phones that automatically switch from cellular signals to satellite when needed. Note that this is a complete reversal of the paradigm 35 years ago, eliminating the need to collect huge volumes of data in one location for redistribution on a local system.

Today’s advanced satellites can provide hundreds of high definition television channels and as broadband services become more and more crucial as an enabler for economic growth, high throughput broadband satellites can deliver service to areas around the world where terrestrial broadband infrastructure is not available.

Although I have described the different services that satellites provide, many of which can be classified as entertainment, we never forget that the ability to provide instantaneous communications services has much more important social implications — including saving lives.

Research and Development is such a crucial arena for any company involved in the satellite industry — millions of dollars are reserved for projects that are indicated as being critical for the company’s growth. How do you determine in which direction such efforts should be extended?

Chris Hoeber
We have a well defined process called “roadmapping”. Each application, for example, DTH, has a service roadmap. We ask ourselves questions such as:
  • What will be the impact of must-carry for local stations?
  • What will be the impact of HDTV?
  • What will be the impact of turning off analog over-the-air service?
  • What will be the impact of IPTV?
  • What will be the impact of 3DTV?
Once we’ve done that, we go the next level, which is how do we design a spacecraft to meet those needs. Then we also have to consider the product line implications, for example to propulsion or antennas? After all of that kind of analysis, we decide what new developments need to be implemented.

In parallel with the top down effort that I just described, our experts in hardware, such as propulsion and antennas, are telling us what is possible and what breakthroughs are around the corner. Often these pending breakthroughs stimulate the thinking of the systems folks and they come up with ideas that they couldn’t have come up with on their own.

The R&D process also includes some intuition and a huge amount of industry knowledge. As an industry leader, we find that we sometimes influence the way applications evolve. In order to produce great results once you have charted your course, you need to have world class experts with hundreds of individual skills, which we have at SS/L.

At SS/L, we have an experienced and highly resourceful workforce with a passion for excellence, in a culture of open collaboration with our customers. I can’t claim to be an expert in anything, except possibly satellite testing, but I am good at synthesizing solutions to problems by tapping into those areas of expertise. Our success shows that this process works.

In your world of R&D, what technological areas and investments are you looking toward to help boost SS/L’s competitiveness?

Chris Hoeber
First, we are right at the end of developing our next generation on board computer system which provides attitude control and command and data handling. This system will provide a new level of robustness and features that will be very attractive to our customers and which will help enable future advances in payload capability.

Beyond that, we have a very broad array of developments going on. These include projects for Broadband, Mobile, Direct To Home Television and DARS Radio and they also provide trickle down capabilities to the core FSS business.

SS/L has quite a history in the satellite industry — from Courier MILSATCOMs to the 1300 series — do you see more investment by government agencies in your product in the future? How will commercial satellites support government agency needs, due to various budget cutbacks?

Chris Hoeber
We recently announced that we are providing a propulsion system for a NASA lunar mission, and in late 2009, a Department of Defense Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) was launched on one of our satellites. I think the line between government and commercial projects is beginning to blur and commercial processes will help provide best value solutions to the government.

Personally, I don’t like the term “commercial.” We have a product line with the same kind of natural evolution that you see in other industries. This process of constantly improving the product is much faster than advances that are dependent on specific government funded programs can be.

If you look at the computer industry — think of the progress made since the first chip was put into a PC only 25 years or so ago. Before that time, computers had evolved in government labs with much more limited applications. There is no reason why the government can’t benefit from the inherent cost savings and reliability built into the product line concept for satellites, the same way they have for computers.

There is a lot of interest in hosted payloads, such as the Cisco IP Router that we integrated onto Intelsat 14 and the navigation payload for the European Union that we are currently integrating onto a satellite we are building for SES. We expect there to be increasing demand for this kind of integration of government and commercial projects and we have the experience to help both parties benefit.

How will SS/L compete globally with the increased competition by other international firms pressing for satellite manufacturing and launch contracts?

Chris Hoeber
This has always been a very competitive industry and we continue to believe that competition makes us better. SS/L builds the world’s largest and most powerful satellites, and we see increasing demand for larger satellites that help leverage the cost of a launch over more transponders. Large, powerful satellites also lend themselves well to the kind of multi-mission project that I mentioned previously, such as hosted payloads or condosats. Also, our long history of reliability is always in our favor when we compete for business.

Could you tell us about the Mission Control Center in Palo Alto and how such plays into SS/L’s overall mission?

Chris Hoeber
We actually have four Mission Control Centers in Palo Alto capable of performing a number of missions in parallel. SS/L successfully launched, deployed and transitioned seven satellites in 2009 so our mission control group was very busy. We are particularly proud of our success in managing two launches that occurred on separate continents just 22 hours apart.

On June 30, 2009 Sirius FM-5 was launched for SiriusXM Radio from Baikonur in Kazahkstan, followed by the TerreStar-1 launch for TerreStar Networks from the European Spaceport in Korou, French Guiana on July 1, 2009. The TerreStar-1 and Sirius FM-5 launches demonstrated the depth of resources and capability strength of the SS/L Mission Operations and launch crews.

These control centers continue to provide service to our customers for the full life of the satellites that we provide, even if that lifetime is far greater than what the contract calls for. An On-Orbit Program Manager and SS/L resources, are available 24/7 for at least 15 years after a satellite is launched.

What satellites is SS/L currently at work building? Are there any potential contracts we should know about to further our knowledge of your company?

Chris Hoeber
We currently have a backlog of 20 satellites and we have a number of active proposals. I can’t tell you which ones we expect to win in the near term, but let me just say that in addition to launching seven satellites last year, we were awarded contracts to build seven new satellites. We’re capable of taking on a new program on an average of once every six or seven weeks or so. I know that keeps us busy, but that is the way we like it.

In recent years, I have focused a lot of my energies on recruiting, and I always look for college grads that have the same drive that I did 35 years ago. I tell them that, although I don’t know the name of the satellite now, if they come to work for us they are likely to be assigned to a project and see it through to launch in two or three years. It’s a great feeling to know that what you were working on last year is now providing an important service from 23,000 miles above the earth’s surface. That feeling is still what keeps me young.

Note: All images are courtesy of Space Systems/Loral