A little less than a year ago, Space News’ Debra Werner took a detailed look at hosted payloads in an article entitled, “What happened to the promise of hosted payloads? It’s complicated.” In her article, Debra talks about how promising hosted payload programs appeared to be for the military and broader federal government and dissected some of the reasons why more hosted payload opportunities never materialized.
While everything that Debra said is accurate – personnel changes, a misalignment of schedules, and other factors have resulted in less than anticipated use of hosted payloads by the military and government. It could give the false impression that hosted payloads are a thing of the past – something that failed to launch despite immense potential, lots of exposure and intense effort by both commercial operators and the DoD to make it work.
Well, I would like to confidently say, “not so fast.” The benefits that Debra attributes to hosted payloads in her article are too attractive for government users to ignore.
Stretching military budgets further
According to the article, the Air Force Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) launched on SES-2, “…saved the Air Force nearly $300 million compared with mounting the sensor on its own satellite.” And the Air Force’s Responsive Environmental Assessment Commercially Hosted (REACH) payloads hosted on Iridium NEXT satellites, “…[cost] $230 million less than a dedicated constellation.”
That’s more than $500 million in savings for just two Air Force programs – for those keeping track at home. At a time when the national debt is approaching $25 trillion, and the government is increasing spending to help fight the COVID-19 global pandemic and mitigate its economic impact, more than half of a billion dollars in savings can’t be overlooked or understated.
In fact, planning for the budgetary efficiency provided by hosted payloads may now be necessary.
In late May, House Democrats called for military budget dollars to be redirected to coronavirus relief efforts. While that may not come to pass, it’s indicative of other military spending trends that are emerging worldwide, with COVID-19 expected to slow the incredible growth in defense spending. The $2 trillion allocated during just the first COVID-19 Stimulus Bill already exceeds the annual defense budget by a factor of three. In this environment, meeting satellite communications and sensor requirements at a lower price tag is even more important than ever before.
Unfortunately, Debra is spot-on about the challenges that hosted payload programs face. But those, too, could be about to change.
More orbits, more satellites, more options
Personnel and military reorganizational challenges aside, timing has been one of the biggest hurdles facing the successful use of hosted payloads by the military. As Debra details, the commercial sector designs and develops capabilities more rapidly than the military. This has resulted in timing problems when host satellite assembly, integration, and test proceed at one pace but the government payload isn’t quite ready to be delivered for integration.
This will always be one of the big problems facing hosted payload efforts – they require both parties to coordinate schedules and ensure that two very complex and challenging projects are synchronized as much as possible. This requires early engagement and flexibility between government and industry.
This is probably not going to change. But what is going to change is the commercial satellite industry.
We’re entering an unprecedented and exciting period for the satellite industry. Satellite owner-operators are continuing investments in not only geostationary earth orbit (GEO), but also heavily in Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO), and Lower Earth Orbit (LEO). This increase in satellite construction and launch opens the door to more hosting and launch opportunities for the military and government – and opens the door for the government to launch payloads into multiple orbits.
LL Cool J once famously rapped, “Don’t call it a comeback…I’ve been here for years.” That sentiment applies to hosted payloads. They never went away. While some challenges kept hosted payload programs from being as plentiful as industry experts predicted, the benefits are too great to ignore.
The reduced costs and expedited time to get payloads into orbit will always be important to the military. They may never be as important as right now when military needs are high, but military top-line budgets may see a decrease.