By Retired Air Force Gen. Lance W. Lord
The 2010 National Space Policy calls for the use of inventive, nontraditional arrangements for acquiring commercial space services, including measures such as hosted government payloads aboard commercial spacecraft. This is a big step in the right direction toward the goal of affordable access to space, particularly given the almost certain decrements in federal budgets, and I commend the far-sighted people who put the policy together. The challenge now is to translate the policy into real public-private partnerships that can merge government requirements, acquisition regulations and budget processes with commercial timelines and practices.
For instance, there’s a lot of work involved in matching potential hosted payloads with the host’s primary mission. It’s a given that the hosted payload must not interfere with the host’s primary mission, so things such as power, available host real estate, and interference must all be considered when selecting a compatible hosted payload mission. In some cases, these issues can be worked as the hosted payload mission develops, but the best host-hosted relationship will clearly be realized when planning starts early in the development and acquisition process.
Iridium, with its satellite replenishment program scheduled for launches in 2015-1017, presents an ideal opportunity for hosted payloads. The low-Earth orbit satellite constellation with its cross-linked architecture can provide unprecedented coverage and persistence in near real-time over the entire Earth’s surface and its atmosphere. Iridium recognized this potential early in the planning process for Iridium NEXT, and allocated a specific amount of space on the satellite platforms, with a volume, weight and power budget to accommodate a range of potential hosted payload missions, from scientific experiments to constellation-wide operational systems. Unlike the normal process of adapting a host after the fact, Iridium’s early planning has provided a unique and extraordinarily flexible platform for a variety of hosted payload missions.
I see a number of opportunities on the horizon. For instance, space-based environmental sensing is important to understanding changes in environment, but budgets for NOAA and NASA scientific missions are being slashed, and plans for future space-based environmental sensing projects are changing daily. Hosted payloads offer an ideal way to eliminate the “data gaps” that are likely to occur as government dedicated scientific space programs are delayed or scrapped. The recent NASA announcement of a decision to host its Deep Space Atomic Clock Experiment on Iridium NEXT is a great example of the way in which commercial investments can be leveraged to meet pressing government requirements.
Another promising application of hosted payloads on commercial satellites is Space Situational Awareness, or SSA. Very simply, SSA means understanding what is going on in the areas of space that are important to the United States. There are thousands of objects in space, ranging from the International Space Station, to active satellites, to depleted boosters and components, to bits and pieces of debris. Our ability to operate safely in space depends on being able to detect and track these objects, and the more we know about what’s out there, the more we can do about it. We’ve made a significant investment is our SSA architecture – both terrestrial and space-based – but budget realities have dictated that key parts have been eliminated. Hosted payloads offer an economical way to provide an effective and resilient commercially-based component which can augment the exquisite SSA systems now being acquired. It’s much more effective to observe space from space as opposed to observing from Earth, and hosted payloads on commercial satellites can be an important resource for this critical mission.
Budget realities are going to drive major changes in the way we acquire space systems, and these are just two of the many ways in which we can leverage commercial investments to augment government programs. In five years we will have been forced to adapt to the realities of a new fiscal environment and develop an investment strategy to preserve legacy capabilities and meet emerging requirements. The Space Policy provides some guidance which I think, if implemented, will help provide access to space while reducing costs. But we don’t need, and can’t afford, to wait five years, so let me say this clearly. We have – today – an opportunity to take advantage of a commercial venture which presents a planned, dedicated hosted payload accommodation which provides global visibility and 24/7 persistence. If we wanted to build a system like this we could never afford to do so, and yet it is available at reasonable cost today. If we are serious about our new Space Policy, and more importantly, about providing critical space capabilities, we need to do what we need to do to take advantage of this unique opportunity.
Public-private partnerships are the way to go in the future. Government cannot accomplish it all alone. From where I stand, looking to hosted payload opportunities on commercial satellites to provide cost-effective access to space just makes good sense.