WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department in the coming months plans to unveil a new website that will serve as the central node for matching government payloads with potential commercial host spacecraft, a Pentagon official said Sept. 23.
The concept of hosting government payloads on commercial satellite platforms has received much attention in recent years as a way for governments to acquire capabilities more cheaply while helping industry to maximize returns on spacecraft investments. While nations such as Australia have been willing to put operational payloads on commercial satellites, the U.S. military has so far only been willing to place research and development payloads on commercial platforms.
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The U.S. National Space Policy released in June contains specific language that encourages the military to pursue more innovative ways to obtain space capabilities, including hosted payload arrangements. Specifically, it directs the government to “work jointly to acquire space launch services and hosted payload arrangements that are reliable, responsive to United States government needs, and cost-effective.”
The policy is the most significant and encouraging change that supporters of hosted payloads have seen in at least three years, said Joe Rouge, director of the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office (NSSO).
“It’s pretty hard to be much more explicit than that, to have the president of the United States basically say, ‘You really ought to look into this and find creative ways to do this,’” Rouge said at a panel discussion hosted by the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank here.
The NSSO and a number of other Pentagon organizations have been working for the past nine months to create a website where government agencies can find planned commercial satellites that could potentially host their payloads, Rouge said. There are still some legal and propriety data issues to be addressed, but the website should go live in the next few months, he said.
“We need a streamlined process,” Rouge said. “Hosted payloads so far have occurred either because somebody dropped an unsolicited proposal or some very, very senior person wanted it to happen overnight. That’s probably not the best way to operate. We need a cost modeling template so the government can look at it and say, ‘If I go this way, this is what it’s going to cost me,’ and it doesn’t take two years of negotiations.”
Government and industry panelists agreed that the legal or technical obstacles to getting more U.S. government payloads on commercial satellites are minor. The biggest challenge is overcoming institutional inertia and the government culture of owning and operating satellites, they said.
But there are other challenges, such as aligning government programs with the shorter development cycles of commercial satellites, said Tim Deaver, vice president for hosted payload development atWorld Skies U.S. Government Solutions.
“Synchronizing the acquisition cycles is probably the most challenging thing,” Deaver said. “Commercial satellites are built in 24 to 33 months at the longest. Trying to get a sensor built and integrated in that timeframe is not only risky but also unrealistic.”
The government’s best bet is to pick an operational mission area and develop the payload without arranging for a specific host satellite, Deaver said. The U.S. Air Force took that kind of flexible approach in structuring a 2008 contract to have SES host an experimental missile warning sensor aboard one of its satellites. As it turns out, the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload sensor took longer to develop than anticipated, so it had to be bumped to a later SES satellite slated for launch in the second half of 2011, he noted.
Another key to the hosted payload model is not managing the program like a typical government satellite program, said Bill Reiner, assistant director of satellite communications and cyber solutions at Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif. For the Wideband Global Satcom satellites Boeing is building for the Air Force, for example, the government employs some 300 people to provide oversight, Reiner said. When Boeing builds similar satellites for commercial customers, there are only three or four people providing oversight. Commercial procurements also are far less encumbered by myriad design reviews and studies, he said.
“In a military procurement — firm-fixed price or cost-plus, it doesn’t matter — you go into a design review and you come out with 50 or 60 or 70 issues,” Reiner said. “Then you get to study them. On the commercial side, when you go in for those types of review sessions, which are far fewer, decisions are made in the room, and you leave with a decision and able to go forward without a lot of study and a lot of time.”
Josh Hartman, principal at the Center for Strategic Space Studies here, agreed the traditional government procurement model does not translate well to hosted payload programs.
“Using the government acquisition process will take away from the cost benefits of hosted payloads,” he said. “If we decide to manage these as traditional acquisition programs with lots of oversight and direct the commercial side in how they build their systems, it’s never going to happen.
“We need to accept from a cultural perspective that we have to let the bird fly out of the nest on its own and trust industry is going to integrate this in a way that does meet our needs. There will still need to be mission assurance requirements and back-end checks, but we can’t continue to operate with a burdensome program office when it comes to hosted payload integration.”