Making a difference can be measured in any number of ways: triumph, budget, policy, inspiration, influence or vision.

All of the above are represented in this year’s brief compilation of difference makers. The UAE’s Mars mission aims to inspire a region that has had very little to be inspired about in recent years. NASA gave the world what likely is its last first-look at a known solar system object for years to come. The White House is seeking real money to protect U.S. space systems and a dreamer convinced some big-time investors that deploying a 650-satellite constellation is not only feasible but actually makes business sense.

Unlike some previous years, no villains are represented, but bad behavior makes its presence felt, if only indirectly.

As always, our criteria are subjective, and our selections represent but a small slice of the people and activities that make up the global space enterprise.

— Warren Ferster, Editor

1. Alan Stern

Principal Investigator, New Horizons


Good things come to those who wait, and Alan Stern waited a long time for a Pluto flyby. Stern started advocating for a mission to what was once considered the ninth planet in the late 1980s. In 2001, after several false starts with other mission concepts, NASA selected a proposal led by Stern for a flyby mission called New Horizons that launched in January 2006.

The mission’s moment of truth — the culmination of a quarter-century of effort — came July 14, when the spacecraft sped past Pluto and its moons. Although the spacecraft made its closest approach that morning, Stern and the rest of the team had to wait 13 hours until the spacecraft’s first post-flyby transmission was scheduled to arrive on Earth. That anticipation was heightened by the computer glitch New Horizons suffered earlier in the month that put the spacecraft into safe mode briefly.

Fortunately, New Horizons phoned home right on schedule, having carried out a successful Pluto flyby. Stern and his fellow planetary scientists have been surprised and excited by the data the spacecraft has returned to date, revealing a world more diverse and dynamic than previously expected. “I don’t think any one of us could have imagined that it was going to be this good of a toy store,” he said at a press conference the day after the flyby.

That excitement would not have been possible without Stern, who was the driving force behind New Horizons. With a few key allies, most notably Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), he fought to get a mission funded and, once New Horizons was selected, to keep the mission on track for launch. He’s also been an advocate for Pluto itself, criticizing a decision by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 to reclassify the world as a “dwarf planet,” a decision widely considered a demotion.

As New Horizons speeds away from Pluto, Stern has plenty of other things to keep him busy. He is the principal investigator for an instrument on Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft, currently orbiting Comet 67P. He has helped build up interest for performing scientific research using commercial suborbital vehicles that, after years of development delays, are nearing service. He’s also been involved in commercial ventures, including Golden Spike, which has proposed carrying out human missions to the moon.

The New Horizons mission, though, is still far from over. The spacecraft will continue to return data from the flyby, over a communications link no faster than an old dial-up modem, until late 2016. Stern’s team is also planning an extended mission that would take New Horizons past a small body in the distant Kuiper Belt in 2019, provided it can win additional funding from NASA. Stern is even weighing a concept for a follow-up mission he called a “hyper orbiter” that would land on Pluto’s moon Charon. That long-awaited first encounter with Pluto may not be his last.

2. Greg Wyler
Founder, OneWeb

Anyone who’s done significant time in the space industry could be forgiven for reflexively dismissing the recently proposed mega-constellations, consisting of hundreds and even thousands of low-orbiting satellites, as pie in the sky.

Prominent among these ventures is OneWeb, a planned 650-satellite constellation intended to deliver Internet connectivity to just about anywhere on the planet.

Greg Wyler Credit: OneWeb

“I’ve been to this rodeo before,” one industry official quipped when details of OneWeb and others began emerging early this year. The late 1990s saw a similar rush of beyond-ambitious low-orbit satellite projects that either never flew or quickly went bankrupt.

Greg Wyler, OneWeb’s founder, has overcome reasonable doubt before: His previous foray into the satellite constellation business, O3b Networks, initially evoked memories of the bad old days, has since launched and appears to be doing a brisk business.

With OneWeb, Wyler seems well on his way to a stunning encore.

January brought news that he had persuaded chipmaker Qualcomm, which was burned in the last low-orbit gold rush, and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture to invest. Two blockbuster announcements followed in June: OneWeb had signed contracts with Airbus Defence and Space to build the satellites, and with Arianespace and Virgin Galactic to launch them; and had enlisted Coca-Cola, Bharti Enterprises, Totalplay Telecommunications and satellite operator Intelsat as investment partners.

OneWeb’s $500 million of investment disclosed to date is not enough to build and launch a 650-satellite constellation but the ripple effects are already being felt throughout the industry. Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne, for example, can no longer be dismissed — fairly or unfairly — as another paper rocket.

Satellite component makers, meanwhile, are gearing up for a surge in orders. In March, Com Dev said it was setting up an engineering team modeled after Lockheed Martin’s storied “Skunk Works” operation to provide tailored offerings for mega-constellations like OneWeb.

Current plans call for all but the first 10 OneWeb satellites to be built at an as-yet-unidentified U.S. location — company officials say 700 long-term jobs will be created by OneWeb production and operations.

But a more far-reaching effect will result if OneWeb is successful in hitting its target production cost of $400,000 to $500,000 per satellite. This likely will require manufacturing innovations that sooner or later will take hold throughout the industry.

OneWeb still has a long way to go. But in less than a year, Wyler has elevated it from longshot to contender with its own center of gravity in the space industry.

3. UAE Space Agency

It might be tempting to view the United Arab Emirates’ plan to send a mission to Mars by 2021 as a gimmick by a country with nothing better to do with its vast oil wealth.

But a meeting with Mohammed al-Ahbabi, the man chosen to lead the UAE Space Agency, created in July 2014 to coordinate various UAE space activities and execute the Mars orbiter mission, leaves a different impression. Soft-spoken and cerebral, al-Ahbabi explains that the Hope mission is as much about building an industry in the country, whose population is about 10 million, as it is about reaching the red planet.

Mohammed al-Ahbabi

Although the agency will obviously need outside help, al-Ahbabi says the Hope spacecraft will be built in the UAE by UAE engineers. The idea is to help diversify the UAE’s economy, which today is heavily dependent on oil, while making a broader statement that the Arab world, long torn by conflict, can make valuable contributions in science and technology.

Building a domestic space industry is not as far-fetched as it might sound. The UAE already is home to two major telecommunications satellite operators, Yahsat and Thuraya, and opened up a satellite development center in 2007 in Dubai. The newly reorganized Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center has built a pair of imaging satellites with substantial help from South Korea’s Satrec Initiative, and is working on a third, Khalifasat, that will be built entirely by UAE engineers.

Rather than serve as an expensive national flag in Martian orbit, Hope will attempt ground-breaking science. The UAE Space Agency recently announced that the spacecraft will produce what it says will be the first global map of the Martian atmosphere, data that will be shared with the rest of the world.

Yes, national pride also is part of the rationale, as evidenced by a target Mars arrival date that coincides with the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s establishment. But al-Ahbabi insists that the project’s other goals will not be sacrificed to meet that schedule.

None of this would be happening were it not for the support of Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE vice president, prime minister and ruler of Dubai; and Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE president and ruler of Abu Dhabi. In announcing the establishment of the space agency and Mars mission mandate last July, both made clear that Hope, as the name suggests, has goals on Earth that as lofty as reaching a distant planet.

4. Rep. Jim Bridenstine

U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) hails from a state that lacks a significant space constituency but has an abundance of dangerous weather, a fact the second-term lawmaker has cited to explain his early interest in satellite activities.

U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine

As a freshman, Bridenstine made his mark as a champion for companies seeking to commercialize the collection of weather data via satellite, traditionally a government function. He has since taken over the chairmanship of the House Science environment subcommittee, a bully pulpit from which he continues to press the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrate to integrate commercial data into its weather forecasting models.

Bridenstine’s support of commercial space activities isn’t limited to weather. In June, for example, he successfully attached an amendment to the House transportation spending bill that would make more funding available to the Federal Aviation Administration office that promotes and regulates the commercial launch industry.

As a House Armed Services Committee member, Bridenstine has pushed commercial initiatives in the military space arena. During a committee hearing in April, he suggested reactivating an experimental missile-warning sensor hosted aboard a commercial telecommunications satellite to track weather and wildfires. In May, he filed H.R. 1864, which would streamline the way the Pentagon buys commercial satellite bandwidth.

If Bridenstine has not introduced legislation that touches the U.S. space enterprise in some way, you can bet he has an opinion about it. He has penned op-eds in support of limiting the FAA’s regulatory power over commercial space launches and gone to bat for NASA’s commercial cargo and crew programs.

Even if none of his legislative initiatives becomes law in this Congress, it stands to reason that Bridenstine, who cruised to victory in his two elections, will be around to push them again in the next. His commercial space initiatives could be easily folded into any number of future bills — something you cannot always count on even from lawmakers with launchpads or astronauts in their districts.

5. Chirag Parikh
Director of Space Policy, U.S. National Security Council

It turns out there was more than meets the eye to the military space portion of the White House’s budget request for 2016, which was released in February. Some $5 billion more, to be specific.

The five-year funding wedge does not appear in the budget documents because the activities it funds, to be carried out by the Air Force and intelligence agencies including the National Reconnaissance Office, are classified. Its existence has since been divulged by Defense Department officials, who say the money is intended for unspecified “space protection” efforts.

Chirag Parikh

Industry sources have described it as the most transformative cash infusion into the U.S. military space program in more than a decade, and said it could reach $8 billion when all is said and done.

How did this happen in an era of supposedly shrinking defense budgets? Many in the national security space community credit National Security Council staffer Chirag Parikh with playing a pivotal role in alerting U.S. President Barack Obama to what defense and intelligence officials describe as an increasing array of threats to U.S. space capabilities.

These officials have cited antisatellite tests by China in recent years and suspicious maneuvers by Russian satellites, without being more specific.

Getting the president’s attention on the matter triggered a chain of events — including a study called the Strategic Space Portfolio Review (SPR), an all-of-government approach to confronting the space threat — that led to and helped direct the space protection funding, which had to be carved out of other Defense Department spending priorities.

The SPR, pronounced “spear,” also has at least indirectly influenced nearly every military space decision in the past year.

Parikh, speaking at the Women in Aerospace Conference in May, said he believed the military space community was ready for a paradigm shift. “We have the right people at the right time at the right place to actually make a difference,” he said.