NASA considering purchase of communications services

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Capitalism in space: Rather than build its own communications satellites, as it has done in the past, NASA is now considering purchasing these services from private communications satellite companies.

NASA had been studying a next-generation communications system that would ultimately replace the current generation of Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) spacecraft in Earth orbit, as well as support missions beyond Earth orbit. That included the possibility of partnerships with the private sector.

“Past networks have been expensive to operate and maintain because they were designed to only serve government customers, which has limited their ability to leverage commercial partnerships,” the agency said in its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal released in February. “The next generation project will engage with commercial industry through mechanisms such as services contracts, hosted payloads, and other public-private-partnerships to allow multiple commercial entities to partner with the Government in order to significantly reduce and eventually eliminate reliance on NASA or NASA contractor run ground systems.”

In a paper presented last year by several NASA officials at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, the agency said working with both commercial and international partners would be among the elements of its next-generation architecture. “Using open, commercial, and international standards will enable the use of commercial services by specifying required performance and interfaces without specifying provider-specific capabilities,” the paper stated. “Commercial entities will compete based on price, quality, timeliness, support and other factors that maintain a competitive environment.”

That desire to work with the commercial sector, along with harnessing new technologies like optical communications, was a reason cited by NASA a year ago for not exercising an option for an additional TDRS satellite under a contract NASA awarded to Boeing in 2007. The last satellite built under that contract, TDRS-M, launched in August 2017.

Using commercial communications satellites makes perfect sense. It will be faster, provide more redundancy, and will save the taxpayer a lot of money.



  • Dave Jones

    Commercial contracts is fine until the day that the commercial entity shapes public space policy without our consent.

  • Dave Jones: Hm. So who do you think runs the country, the government or the people? By what you say here, it seems you think we the people are the servants of the government, not the other way around.

  • Tom Billings

    Dave, to extend Bob’s remark, ….Just why do you think it is inappropriate for one social institution, government, to be affected by changes in one of the institutions of Civil Society, outside government? Our representative government is better than most, but it is still a political hierarchy, with all the baroque agency costs of hierarchies that cannot admit their agency costs.

    Few who are not completely hungry for government to control Civil Society complain when government cannot impose its will on law-abiding citizens. The government must adapt to *our* freedoms of action, …not the other way around. Why should they *not* adapt to what an owner of a satellite service is willing to contract for?

  • Edward

    Using commercial entities is a standard method of operation for government. It does not make all the things that it uses but outsources many of its needs. They may stamp “Property of U.S. government” on their pens, but they buy them from a commercial operation.

    A reason for making their own property, such as TDRS, is that there was not a commercial operation available at the time to do the job, for communicating with its satellites and especially the Space Shuttle. InMarSat communicated with ships, which are also not fixed positions, but their capability was different than NASA’s needs.

    For some time, now, commercial operations have been moving in the direction that NASA needs. For instance, Iridium communicates from satellite to satellite. Commercial experience is beginning to match, or maybe surpass, some of NASA’s requirements. Their own space policies are different from governments.

    Commercial entities by necessity must be efficient and effective, but government entities all too often survive when they are neither. Congress does not seem to mind. If replacing TDRS with a commercial equivalent frees up money for more science, then that is a good decision.

  • mkent

    Using commercial communications satellites makes perfect sense. It will be faster, provide more redundancy, and will save the taxpayer a lot of money.

    The TDRS systems is already composed of commercial communications satellites. The last batch of satellites (TDRS-11, 12, & 13) were based on the commercial BSS-601HP bus built by Boeing under a firm, fixed-price contract. The only difference is now NASA is considering buying communications bandwidth from commercial providers instead of communications satellites.

    But it’s not clear that buying communications by the megabit will be cheaper for NASA. It’s usually cheaper to buy rather than lease if you’re in it for the long haul, and TDRS satellites usually last a long time. TDRS-1 was finally retired after 27 years of service. I suspect leasing that capacity for 27 years would have cost far more than what NASA purchased and operated it for.

  • wodun

    NASA had been studying a next-generation communications system that would ultimately replace the current generation of Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) spacecraft in Earth orbit, as well as support missions beyond Earth orbit.

    This could be tied into LOP-G development and the dual track approach to lunar operations. Supposedly, there are supposed to be more than one propulsion module constructed and it was suggested that the “loser” could use their module for a lunar communications satellite.

    What is good about a commercial operator is that they can find customers other than NASA. This fits in with the PPP track on the moon because the companies participating in that also retain control over their products and need to find other customers. So, a commercial communications satellite would facilitate other commercial endeavors on the lunar surface or in lunar orbit.

    This is another bit of the puzzle but it would be nice to see something more explicit about what NASA wants to do on the Moon because contrary to some people’s beliefs, it doesn’t just involve SLS/Orion/LOP-G.

  • Edward

    mkent wrote: “The TDRS systems is already composed of commercial communications satellites.

    TDRS K through M were NASA payloads mounted to a commercial satellite manufacturer’s standard core. This does not make them commercial; several military satellites have also been built in the same fashion.

    However, NASA may have learned that using an existing standard satellite core saved them a lot of money that they then were able to use on other projects, probably some of which used TDRS K through M.

    The next step — this step — is to use commercial satellites themselves, as their payloads are optimized for cost and performance. NASA does not have to spend time and money developing their own communication payloads. Reliability problems then fall onto the commercial supplier, and for times when there is less communication traffic, NASA’s costs are reduced, whereas with TDRSS, the system has to be set up for the maximum traffic at all times, with various staffs dedicated to that one system. Hiring commercial satellites reduces the NASA staffing to mostly the user and requisition groups, leaving the majority of operations and other functions to the commercial supplier.

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