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High-tech satellites have Palo Alto soul

New wave of mobile video, audio, communications has roots in Space Systems/Loral's Palo Alto campus

Walking through the Space Systems/Loral campus in Palo Alto feels a little like being an Oompa Loompa in Willy Wonka's fictional chocolate factory. Claustrophobic corridors the length of two football fields suddenly open up to seven-story clean rooms with 60-foot doors, dwarfing the robed, hair-netted workers and the huge satellites they assemble.

Open another door and you're face to face with a giant orb known as the "blue pumpkin," where assembled satellites are alternately heated and cooled in a vacuum to simulate the temperature fluctuations of life in space. Employees call it the "shake & bake" room, because it also houses test equipment designed to simulate the conditions of a rocket launch.

"If anything is going to break, we want it to break here," said Christopher Hoeber, senior vice president of program management and systems engineering.

Down a hall is a room resembling a voiceover booth in a recording studio. But the sound-insulating foam has peaks and valleys four feet tall jutting out from every available surface. It's an anechoic chamber used to test the accuracy of the beam each satellite will transmit when it reaches its orbit, high above the earth.

Everything here is on such a fantastic scale, it's easy to feel small while touring the facility. Even more impressive in this day of outsourcing and overseas manufacturing is that Space Systems/Loral handles all its engineering, programming, marketing and assembly here in the heart of Silicon Valley.

"It's the diversity of our workforce," said Arnold Friedman, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Space Systems/Loral. While most high-tech companies would consider manufacturing in Silicon Valley a financial impossibility, it's the very thing that makes Space Systems/Loral's market leadership possible.

"You can't just go anywhere to have someone build a satellite for you. It takes lots of different technical expertise. The things we build have to travel 22,000 miles and last for 15 years in the heat of the sun and the cold of space. It takes a sophisticated team to put that together."

At more than 2,200 employees -- 40 percent of whom have been there more than 10 years -- Space Systems/Loral is one of Palo Alto's largest employers.

It's just one of many ways the company is the ultimate Silicon Valley anomaly: a Cold-War era high-tech company that has managed to translate its unique product into the topography of the digital age.

The company began life as the Western development laboratories of Philco in 1957 and launched its first satellite in 1960 -- a small repeater orb that barely resembles the huge communications satellites it builds today. It became Philco-Ford in 1966, Ford Aerospace in 1976 and finally Space Systems/Loral in 1990. In that time, it has won both private and government contracts, making everything from weather imaging satellites to communications powerhouses.

The Palo Alto campus is more than just a collection of unusually long halls and tall rooms; its 25 buildings on and around Fabian Way give the company 1 million square feet of prime Palo Alto office space.

So it's a little strange that Space Systems/Loral's work goes largely unseen by the general public. Another of the city's top employers, HP, gets a lot more face time with consumers. Its computers, printers and digital cameras are definitely more of a tangible, terrestrial proposition.

Space Systems/Loral's products are celestial -- the company currently has 53 satellites in orbit and another 15 or so on the ground, either awaiting deployment or in production -- but may actually have greater impact on people's daily lives.

The Palo Alto company has built a substantial piece of the backbone for all those megabytes of video, music, text and voice messages bouncing around the globe.

According to Friedman, 60 percent of all satellites are devoted to delivering video. "Even if you have cable TV, the signal still comes from a satellite," he said.

The company has built 10 satellites for DirecTV and EchoStar, two major providers of direct-broadcast content.

It's not just for the consumer, either. "Local remote news crews send their signal to a satellite and then to the station, which then gets broadcast via satellite," Friedman said.

In 2005, the company deployed the 14,000-pound Thaicom 4 satellite aboard an Ariane 5 rocket to provide broadband Internet services to 14 countries in the Asia-Pacific region with a throughput of more than 40 gigabits per second.

All that bandwidth makes a lot of sense in light of the new generation of Internet-enabled mobile communications devices such as Apple's much anticipated iPhone.

In fact, the proliferation of mobile, video-capable devices is great news for the satellite maker. Burgeoning satellite-radio market leaders are good customers too: Sirius and XM both purchase Palo Alto-built satellites from Space Systems/Loral.

With more than 10 new launches scheduled for the next two years, Space Systems/Loral seems to be in the right place at the right time.

"It all comes down to people who are passionate about what they do," said Hoeber, a 28-year employee. "The technology is cool, but the best part is coming to work with smart people."

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