As Inspector General Frets, NASA Bides Time on TDRS Replacements

by

WASHINGTON — Despite another reminder from its inspector general that the agency’s space communications network is heading for a bandwidth logjam in 2016, NASA is not rushing to procure more of the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) that keep Earth-orbiting spacecraft in touch with the ground, an official said.

“NASA has not started any procurement action for future TDRS,” Badri Younes, deputy associate administrator for the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Office at NASA headquarters here, wrote in a Dec. 4 email. “However, the Goddard Space Flight Center has begun architecting and investigating the feasibility of implementing the next generation data relay satellites.”

Younes sent his email less than a month after the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) reiterated longstanding concerns about the health of the aging, nine-satellite, geosynchronous TDRS constellation.

“By 2016, four of the nine TDRSs will reach the end of their expected operational lives,” the OIG wrote in a Nov. 14 audit report titled “NASA’s Top Management and Performance Challenges.” In the same report, the OIG said “a NASA study indicates that one of the spare satellites the Agency has in on-orbit storage is already operating 15 years past its design life and could fail as soon as 2014. However, NASA currently has only two new third-generation satellites in orbit to replace four aging satellites.”

Worries over NASA’s aging space telecom infrastructure, and the agency’s management of that infrastructure, are not new. The SCaN office Younes runs was created in 2007 to centralize management of NASA’s sprawling space communications assets, which prior to SCaN were managed by three separate offices. The OIG, for its part, has been ringing alarm bells about SCaN since 2010.

SCaN also remains the subject of an ongoing audit by the NASA OIG, which says the program’s troubles stem at least in part from the fact that it has been underfunded.

Including one satellite lost to the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger accident and two that have been taken out of service, 12 TDRS spacecraft have been built since 1983. The first seven TDRS satellites were made by a division of TRW subsequently acquired by Northrop Grumman. Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems took over as the TDRS prime in 1995 and so far has produced five satellites under back-to-back contracts. A sixth, TDRS-M, is still under construction.

Of the nine TDRS spacecraft now on orbit, seven are on active duty and two are in storage orbits, according to NASA’s SCaN website. The TDRS network needs a minimum seven spacecraft on orbit, including one spare, according to the OIG’s April audit report.

The oldest active satellite in the TDRS constellation, TDRS-3, is now 26 years old. The newest, TDRS-L, launched in January and was declared operational in October.
It could be years before another TDRS launch, according to the NASA OIG.

While NASA had planned to launch TDRS-M “as early as December 2015, the Agency now expects to delay that launch by as many as 6 years because it lacks funding for a launch vehicle,” the inspector general wrote in the audit report published Nov. 14.

Younes, in his Dec. 4 email, would not address the TDRS launch schedule and said only that “NASA is working to secure a launch for TDRS-M.”

NASA’s Launch Services Program, which is responsible for securing a ride for the Boeing-built satellite, had yet to put TDRS-M on its public manifest as of press time Dec. 12.

“As far as TDRS-M goes, the manifest is the best pace to get up-to-date information,” NASA spokesman Josh Buck wrote in a Dec. 3 email. “If/when it’s manifested, it will appear there.”

In its 2015 budget request, NASA suggested it might launch TDRS-M aboard a rocket other than the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 that lofted the other two third-generation TDRS spacecraft Boeing built under the roughly $1.5 billion contract it won in 2007. NASA ordered two satellites under the base contract, picked up an option for a third in 2011, and passed on an option for a fourth, TDRS-N, in 2013.

The OIG, in its November report, worried that “the Agency’s decision in 2013 not to exercise the option to purchase a fourth satellite at a favorable price will result in NASA paying considerably more for a replacement satellite in the future.”

When TDRS-M is finished in July, Boeing will be responsible for safely storing the spacecraft, Andy Kopito, civil space programs director for government space systems at Boeing Network & Space Systems, wrote in a Dec. 4 email.

“TDRS-M has completed Thermal Vacuum testing,” Kopito wrote. “The next step is final integration of the antennas, then we will conduct vibration testing. The satellite remains on plan for delivery in July 2015. NASA has requested that we store the satellite until a launch becomes available.”