Frustration mounts over lack of government hosted payload adoption

Dr. John Paffett, Al Tadros, Kay Sears, Earl White, and Phil Liebrecht prepare for a the "Developments in the Adoption of Commercial Hosted Payloads," panel moderated by Ideanco CEO, Maher Ezzeddine, at the SATELLITE 2016 Conference.
Dr. John Paffett, Al Tadros, Kay Sears, Earl White, and Phil Liebrecht prepare for the, “Developments in the Adoption of Commercial Hosted Payloads,” panel moderated by Phillip Spector, at the SATELLITE 2016 Conference.

Earlier this month, the GovSat Report editorial team had the opportunity to attend the SATELLITE 2016 Conference at the Gaylord National Convention Center, in National Harbor, MD. This four-day-long event – one of the satellite industry’s largest and most influential conferences and expositions – brought together industry leaders, satellite experts and government decision makers to discuss innovative new satellite technologies, industry trends and best practices in the use and acquisition of COMSATCOM hardware, services and solutions.

During the very first panel discussion I attended at this year’s event, entitled, “Developments in the Adoption of Hosted Payload and Smallsats for Government Use,” experts from private industry and the federal government came together to discuss the state of hosted payload adoption across government agencies, and the factors impacting their adoption. Surprisingly, the outlook wasn’t as positive as one would anticipate.

Hosted payloads have the ability to deliver an impressive list of benefits to government organizations, federal agencies and military branches. By hosting a government payload on a commercial satellite, government users can drastically decrease the total cost of putting that payload into space. This cost savings is achieved by splitting the expense of constructing the spacecraft and launch.

But cost savings is just one of the important benefits of hosted payloads. The use of a hosted payload as an alternative to the construction and launch of a government owned and operated satellite can get that payload and its mission-critical capabilities into space faster, since satellite fielding – and therefore the hosting opportunity – typically operates in a 36 month purchase decision-to-launch cycle, and since most COMSATCOM providers have a few launches during the course of the year simply to replace satellites and refresh their constellations.

The U.S. Government knows of these benefits and acknowledges them. According to Philip Liebrecht, the Assistant Deputy Associate Administrator and Deputy Program Manager of Space Communications and Navigation at NASA, “There are a lot of advantages of these hosted payloads when you look at them from the government’s vantage point. Especially from NASA’s standpoint. But the big ones are the potential for lower costs, the more rapid technology refresh, architecture flexibility…redundancy, robustness and resiliency. And all of those are important.”

Mr. Liebrecht’s comment brings up another very important benefit of hosted payloads that many ignore – they’re capable of making government satellite constellations and programs more secure and resilient. Government owned and operated satellites shine like beacons in the sky for adversaries. However, government payloads on commercial satellites are harder to identify. They also can be difficult to impact without also impacting other, non-governmental satellite capacity and capabilities. Attributes of resilience, including disaggregation, distribution, diversification, proliferation and protection can all be enabled and enhanced by the use of hosted payloads.

However, despite these benefits, the overarching tone during the panel discussion was one of exasperation and frustration due to the perceptively slow adoption of hosted payloads across the government.

Earl White discusses the frustration he experienced with the Air Force Space Command, watching more than three mutually-beneficial hosted payload program proposals fail.
Earl White discusses the frustration he experienced with the Air Force Space Command, watching more than three mutually-beneficial hosted payload program proposals fail.

This frustration was plainly and eloquently explained by Earl White, a former Air Force Senior Executive and Intelligence Advisor at the United States Space Security and Defense Program, who said, “I left government service last month after 27 years with the National Reconnaissance Office and Air Force Space Command…I left frustrated. In my last seven years in Air Force Space Command, I saw three major proposals for hosted payloads come through – and a few smaller ones as well – and in every case, they were going to leverage large commercial [satellites] and provide some kind of benefit to the government at bargain basement price. All three failed. In fact, every hosted payload proposal that I saw come through Air Force Space Command failed.”

Frustration aside, the panel did identify some solid reasons why hosted payload adoption has crept forward at a slower pace, and also identified some ways in which the military, federal agencies and industry can all work towards making hosted payloads a more trusted and relied-upon method for enabling satellite communications and capabilities. Let’s look at the causes first.

What’s Hindering Hosted Payloads?

Surprisingly…not much. Based on the discussions and presentations during the hosted payload panel, the biggest challenges for hosted payloads appear to be cultural and procedural. Or, as Al Tadros, the Chair of the Hosted Payload Alliance and Vice President of Civil Defense Business at SSL, explained, “Some of [the challenges] are real – such as scheduling and programmatics – and some of them are perception – such as culture and tradition – that have real manifestations that need to be addressed.”

Ultimately, the government and the industry operate at a different pace. They also differ in philosophy when it comes to the planning and execution of programs.

Hosted Payload Alliance Chair, Al Tadros, discusses the programmatic and cultural changes necessary to embrace more hosted payload programs in the government.
Hosted Payload Alliance Chair, Al Tadros, discusses the programmatic and cultural changes necessary to embrace more hosted payload programs in the government.

The federal government works at a much slower pace than private industry. The planning of government satellite programs needs to begin almost a decade in advance due to the large number of processes and amount of budgeting that needs to take place. Private industry operates much more quickly and with far less time to execute. This is where it becomes difficult to align government processes with commercial launch schedules. The government is often unprepared to meet such quick turnaround times, and private industry simply doesn’t work or plan as far out as the government does.

Then there’s the cultural issue. Many hosted payload programs are challenging programs of record. This is often a losing battle since many government employees at the program management level are hesitant to change, even when senior decision makers are in favor of it.
The federal government and military are also often concerned about the legal ramifications and issues that may arise from making certain commitments. Private enterprises simply looking for a verbal or written confirmation of an agency’s interest in a collaboration or partnership will be turned down by legal departments concerned that they’re angling the agency towards potential litigation. This cautious nature ends up torpedoing many hosted payload public-private partnerships before they even get off the ground.

An example of this was provided by Mr. White, who shared the following anecdote:

One of the [satellite] companies had investors that were ready to put money – big money – into a constellation, but they were a little bit nervous. And they wanted some kind of confidence that the government would buy this kind of service – and not much confidence, just a little bit. So I drafted them a letter for the Commander of Air Force Space Command to sign…The letter was very noncommittal and basically said that the solution was one that we might be interested in…Well this mealy-worded letter was sufficient for the investors until Air Force Space Command legal reviewed it and said, “no way…if this company goes out of business, they may sue the government…”

Coming Together to Make Hosted Payloads a Reality:

Although the challenges outlined above may seem relatively minor, they’ve managed to restrict hosted payload missions and deployments by the U.S. government to just a handful of notable programs. However, the panelists did present a few enticing ideas that can help both private industry and government entities come together to make more hosted payloads a reality.

The first concept is to be flexible when it comes to hosted payload models. Often times, a hosted payload program is a collaboration between the government, agency or military branch and its private industry partner. Panelists urged the `government to come to industry early in the process so that a collaborative solution to the government’s problem or need can be identified. Conversely, they also urged industry partners to work collaboratively to identify different models in which to implement a hosted payload, enabling the government entity to find one that both fits their needs and comfort level.

Next, the panel discussed some simple steps that can be taken to better align industry and government in the timing and execution of hosted payload programs.

Included in these proposed steps was the creation of a “train schedule” of launches that clearly shows the federal government when there are upcoming industry satellite launches that could play host to hosted payload programs. They also encouraged industry partners to provide a number of potential launch opportunities in succession that can give government entities options should they miss their initial target launch date. This is a step that Kay Sears noted was very effective in the successful completion of the SES and Air Force CHIRP hosted payload program.

NASA's Phil Liebrecht discusses the financial and budgetary issues that hosted payload programs experience in the federal government.
NASA’s Phil Liebrecht discusses the financial and budgetary issues that hosted payload programs experience in the federal government.

Finally, industry needs to understand the financial restraints and challenges that federal government agencies face. Hard cost caps are a reality for agencies such as NASA, and industry partners need to work collaboratively to fit programs under them. Cost uncertainty also has to be eliminated to bring a hosted payload program from conception to completion, since significant cost overruns can cause the canceling of programs at cash-strapped agencies.

This was well explained by Mr. Leibrecht when he explained how hosted payload programs fail at NASA, stating that, “the most common case is that the cost of the hosting was just too high to come up with a mission that could fit within the cost cap. And in some cases – and as frequently happens with high technology payloads – there are changes in the payload as the development process takes place and all of a sudden there is a change in the requirements for the host. And those drive the cost up, and the mission is canceled. Cost is very, very important…”

Although there continues to be some frustration at the slower than anticipated pace of hosted payload adoption, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The government recognizes the benefits and understands what it can gain through more aggressive uses of hosted payloads. And the successful hosted payload programs – including CHIRP and the Air Force’s Pathfinder program – are setting the stage by eliminating uncertainty and doubt about the validity and ROI of hosted payloads. With some simple compromises and minor steps, the challenges can be overcome, and this cost effective, security-increasing and mission-expediting alternative can see even more rapid adoption.

To learn more about hosted payloads, click on the resources below:

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