NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Despite the schedule and cost savings promised by flying government hosted payloads on commercial satellites, industry and former government officials expressed frustration, directed largely at government agencies, with the difficulties they’ve encountered in trying to fly such payloads.
During a panel session about hosted payloads at the Satellite 2016 conference here March 7, one former government official said he recently left the Air Force after seeing several proposals for hosted payloads be rejected by the service.
“I left frustrated,” said Earl White, who ended a 27-year career with the National Reconnaissance Office and U.S. Air Force Space Command last month. That included, he said, seven years at Air Force Space Command where he saw three major proposals for commercially hosted payloads go through his office.
“In every case, they were going to leverage large commercial funding and provide some kind of real benefit to the government at a bargain basement price,” he said of those proposals. “All three failed.”
White didn’t elaborate on the specific proposals, but he said those concepts, and other ones he saw come through his office, typically failed for one of three reasons. In one specific case, he said, a hosted payload proposal clashed with a program that was classified at the time. That program, he said, has since been declassified: the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), a pair of satellites designed to keep tabs on objects in geostationary orbit.
A second issue, he said, were inflexible rules and a lack of enabling regulations, such as an unwillingness for government agencies to even formally consider the possibility of using commercial services. A third reason was suspicion in government about the motivations of commercial companies offering hosted payload services.
Those issues, he said, are likely rooted in an unwillingness to change. “The NRO and Air Force Space Command have to get it right, and they have to get it right the first time. They have a long legacy of how to do things right,” he said. “They’re very resistant to change, and absent an outside stimulus, it’s going to be very hard to get them to make any changes.”
Industry shared White’s disappointment with the lack of use of hosted payload opportunities. “I’m as frustrated as Earl is from the outside,” said Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General.
Sears said some specific problems with hosted payloads had to do with the Air Force’s contracting vehicle, known as Hosted Payload Solutions, that has been in place since 2014 by the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC). “It was really out of sync with all of the major [satellite] programs” the Air Force is deploying, she said. “It wasn’t a really good place for an insertion strategy.”
She added that while leadership has embraced the concept of hosted payloads, that support has not filtered down to actions by lower-level staff. “The leadership across the Air Force, across the NRO, across SMC, are very positive about implementing hosted payloads,” she said. “The culture issue is happening at the O-6 [colonel] level and down. They’re the ones that are struggling with this change.”
Despite that frustration, both Sears and White said they remained optimistic that hosted payloads would win wider adoption by the military, in part because of benefits they offer beyond cost and schedule.
“One thing that is really helping the hosted payload business model is this concept of resiliency,” Sears said. “As we move into the next generation of a lot of these major programs, resiliency is a major objective, and it’s really hard to deny that hosting payloads and having multiple sources to meet your mission is a resilient architecture.”
White said that the Chinese anti-satellite weapon test in 2007 helped provide that “outside stimulus” needed for greater acceptance of hosted payloads. He cited as one example the new commercial imaging strategy issued by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency last year. “It’s very, very forward-leaning when it comes to the smallsat world, and when it comes to hosted payloads,” he said.
Air Force Space Command, he added, is also working on its own Space Enterprise Vision that should offer new opportunities for hosted payloads. “It’s a new approach for doing space missions that will involve smallsats, disaggregation, and commercially hosted payloads,” he said. “It’s an excellent vision, but it’s only a vision. The plan underneath it has not been fleshed out. They’re going to need a lot of help.”