Access to space is expensive, and business as usual is no longer an option. The budget realities in Washington will dictate an inevitable change in how the government pursues space-based initiatives in the future. It will require hard decisions; some existing programs will be cut and others delayed. These are the realities in this economic environment.

These unsettled times call for innovative alternatives when assessing future space missions. One of them is the deployment of hosted payloads on commercial satellites.

The 2010 U.S. National Space Policy calls for the wider use of public-private partnerships with the commercial space industry to meet mission requirements. It explicitly directs government departments and agencies to consider nontraditional alternatives for the acquisition of space goods and services, and specifically cites hosted payloads as an option.

The policy is clear and direct. The devil is in the details, and implementation will not be easy, since it will be counterintuitive to the way things have been done in many departments and agencies for a good many years.

To help move this process forward, a number of major space companies have come together to form the Hosted Payload Alliance (HPA), which is serving as a bridge between government and private industry to discuss and resolve issues regarding hosted payloads on commercial satellites. The steering committee for the HPA is made up of seven companies: Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, Intelsat General Corp., Iridium Communications Inc., Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Orbital Sciences Corp., SES World Skies U.S. Government Solutions and Space Systems/Loral.

The steering committee held its first meeting during the Satellite 2011 conference in March, and the first general meeting took place during the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. More than 120 senior-level representatives from the space industry and government attended. The agenda featured a panel of senior government officials, moderated by retired Gen. Lance W. Lord, the former commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command and CEO of L2 Aerospace. The panelists gave frank assessments of the opportunities and challenges associated with operationalizing the guidance outlined in the 2010 National Space Policy. A lively and spirited question-and-answer session followed the panelists’ presentations.

The steering committee is now fleshing out the association’s structure, and identifying specific strategies and actions to pursue the goals established in the HPA charter. Membership is open to other companies in the space industry, including satellite operators, satellite manufacturers, system integrators and other interested parties, and the steering committee will publish detailed membership criteria in the near future.

The HPA is not a lobbying organization. Its primary mission is to serve as a forum connecting representatives from government and industry to further the goals set forth in the National Space Policy. It also has a strong educational focus, seeking to raise awareness of the benefits of hosting payloads on commercial satellites, and providing a source of industry expertise on issues relating to hosted payloads for stakeholders in the public and private sectors.

To be sure, hosted payloads are not a brand-new concept. There are plenty of precedents, and all the members of the HPA steering committee are involved in active hosted payload programs either already in space or in deployment. Let me cite a few examples.

* The Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) flight demonstration program represents an arrangement between the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and SES World Skies U.S. Government Solutions to host a wide field-of-view, infrared staring sensor on board the SES-2 spacecraft scheduled for launch in August. Orbital Sciences Corp. built the SES-2 spacecraft and SAIC designed and built the sensor.

* The Internet Router in Space (IRIS) program is a Defense Department Joint Capability Technology Demonstration managed by Cisco and Intelsat General. The IRIS hosted payload was aboard the IS-14 satellite, built by Space Systems/Loral and launched in November 2009, and is the first IP router in space.

* The Active Magnetosphere and Planetary Electrodynamics Response Experiment (AMPERE) is a combined effort of the National Science Foundation, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Iridium and Boeing. AMPERE uses sensors aboard Iridium satellites to monitor space weather data in real time, enabling high-quality forecasting of space-based solar storms, which can disrupt aviation and terrestrial telecom and satellite systems.

Several of the HPA members have also been involved with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) used for air navigation.

The U.S. government is not the only customer for hosted payloads. For instance, Space Systems/Loral is building a satellite for SES that has a WAAS-like payload for the European Union, and the Australian Defence Force is purchasing a UHF payload on the Intelsat IS-22 communications satellite, built by Boeing, with a launch date in 2012.

All these initiatives promise new capabilities at significant savings. Despite these precedents, however, there is a lingering perception that hosted payloads are a new and unproven concept. They’re not, but they do require a new way of thinking.

Any new idea takes time to move from the policy level to the program level in the government, and although there are numerous examples of government payloads hosted on commercial satellites, they’ve typically been one-offs  that came to fruition as a result of inspired leadership and heroic efforts. There’s no process in place to consider hosted payloads as a regular way of doing business and to evaluate them as an alternative to dedicated space platforms.

The HPA was established to aid this movement by creating a forum that encourages an open dialogue between the potential users and suppliers of hosted payloads, and to align the government’s operational requirements and timetables with the commercial practices of the private sector when it comes to the details of acquiring, designing, manufacturing and deploying payloads into space on commercial satellites.

To this end, hopefully, the government — and the public it serves — will benefit from faster and less expensive access to space.


Don Thoma is chairman of the Hosted Payload Alliance.