These are tough times, and they do not look like they will be getting easier any time soon. Past government policy has facilitated a number of debt problems that are coming to a head the world over, and the effects of which are dragging the global economy down, including the space economy. Many governments have been using taxpayer funds to try and generate some kind of stimulus, but to date there does not seem to be much effect. One thing is clear: Only business can create sustainable employment that is geared to producing products and services that are in need. And the space industry is no different, despite its legacy of public support and subsidization. Now is the time to release the potential of commercial ideas and innovations to start rebuilding significant parts of our economies.
I am speaking of commercial-off-the-shelf technologies as well as commercial business initiatives. Commercial-off-the-shelf products, by their very nature, are designed, optimized and delivered with the end-users in mind and are made available as soon as possible because that is in the best interest of clients. To get certain sections of the economy going, it is therefore imperative that government institutions begin to remove barriers that would impede the adoption and implementation of key technologies that are needed now.
One of the key values of commercial-off-the-shelf products and services is that they relieve the end-user of the work required to experience a certain benefit — in effect, commercial-off-the-shelf allows people and organizations to optimize their time in their area of expertise, or better yet, in making better and informed decisions. And the space industry is just one of many right now that need policy- and decision-makers to be spending more time on making the right choices versus instituting government make-work programs.
Commercial business initiatives also should be fundamentally supported. These tend to be extensively (in time and in resources) studied across a number of business factors such that when a company announces a technology or process that it believes will meet a need, we can be largely assured that it has done its homework to a great extent (as the survival of the business may depend on it). Since often there is no fallback position for delaying activities, commercial companies are more active in pursuing innovation in order to get capabilities fielded. And it is the rapid pursuit of innovation that is necessary to maintain competitiveness among the various rapidly growing economies around the world.
Let’s take the example of in-space robotic servicing. What is holding up this technology offering? Certainly it cannot be the need: Over the past few years there have been a number of in-orbit incidents that, according to the companies involved, have generated expected losses of over a half-billion dollars — money that could have been saved or invested had an on-orbit robotic servicing system been available. These include losses due to incorrect orbit placement, such as Express-AM4 (insured for $260 million); losses due to incorrect deployments of satellite components, such as New Dawn ($310.2 million in lost revenue) and Telstar 14R/Estrela do Sul 2 (40 percent capacity loss); losses due to satellite system failure, such as Galaxy 15 (nine-month usage loss); losses due to space systems running out of fuel while productive systems remain viable, such asW3B (a total loss) and Amos 5i ($12 million in direct damages); and losses due to space junk occupying valuable space real estate, such as Cosmos 2251/ 33 (a total loss for Iridium). Is it really that hard to justify a business case here? And beyond that, is it really that hard for government bodies to figure out that this is a capability whose time has come?
The case study of’s New Dawn spacecraft is particularly ironic, considering the precarious status of that company’s possible $280 million investment in MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates’ robotic servicing business proposal. While the current plan is to provide refueling services for spacecraft lifetime extension, it is not a far-fetched idea that the makers of the Canadarm for the space shuttle and the Mobile Servicing System for the international space station could be up to the task of creating a robotic mechanic. In fact, with the drawdown of shuttle operations, perhaps now is the best time to take advantage of that expert capital.
Let’s also not forget the effect that an on-orbit service could have on the cost of insurance, which in 2010 provided coverage for approximately 175 satellites worth $17 billion, and whose total market capacity is in the area of $600 million to $800 million. It should be a no-brainer that an effective and responsible service will reduce risk to satellite builders, owners and operators. And while initial assumptions may be that this would hurt the insurance industry with fewer systems being launched and replaced, conventional wisdom dictates that both reduced development costs (from lower insurance and perhaps even less reliance on robust system redundancy) and safer skies will encourage more flying, i.e., industry confidence in the space support infrastructure should lead to the launching of more systems.
Granted, there will always be risk involved when you are trying to bring together two objects that are rapidly moving along their orbital paths — but here again is the opportunity to move that technological yardstick even further. I’m sure there was much trepidation in the development of air-to-air refueling technologies or in robotic surgical procedures, but these technologies exist (and are improving) today. The point is that someone at the right level had to have the vision and courage to support these kinds of innovations.
There are, of course, examples of increasing confidence in commercial-off-the-shelf products and commercial innovation. The continued support and investment in Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is one, and the passing of the torch of low Earth orbit launch insertion from U.S. government to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program is another. And let us not forget the establishment of the commercial spaceport in New Mexico. Granted, these examples are somewhat related but the message is clear: Government needs to lead with intelligent and logical policies that support industry, follow (or at least listen to) commercial advice that pertains to sound business practices, and get out of the way when the technology and time are right.
Wayne A. Ellis is an independent aerospace and defense consultant with AppSpace Solutions Inc. and a board member of the Canadian Space Society.