America's Space Weakness

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On August 15, 2010, the U.S. Air Force almost lost a $2-billion communications satellite. A team of military and contract space operators eventually saved the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite, built by Lockheed Martin. But the rescue, admittedly an impressive technological feat, is also a window into the greatest weaknesses of the world’s leading space power, according to one space insider.

The seven-ton “AEHF-1,” part of a planned six-satellite constellation meant to support radio communication between far-flung U.S. military units, had been in orbit just one day when the problems began. The satellite started out in a highly-elliptical, temporary orbit. The plan was to use the spacecraft’s on-board engine to boost it to a permanent, geo-stationary orbit. But when the Air Force space operators at Los Angeles Air Force Base activated the engine, nothing happened. The Government Accountability Office would later blame the failure on a rag left inside a fuel line by a Lockheed worker.

The Air Force had two choices: it could abandon the satellite in its unstable elliptical orbit or attempt to boost it into the operational orbit by other means. After a marathon brainstorming session, a team of engineers is said to have determined that the latter was just barely possible. They could gradually shift AEHF-1’s orbit using the satellite’s weak maneuvering thrusters – something the thrusters weren’t designed for. The process took more than a year and required careful navigation to dodge other satellites and to avoid exposing AEHF-1 too long to the sun’s rays. Engineers were forced to re-invent procedures for conducting complex orbital maneuvers.

In October last year, AEHF-1 finally reached its originally-planned orbit. The satellite is slated to become fully operational in March.

While impressive in its own right, the rescue of AEHF-1 exposes some vexing flaws in the U.S. space force. For one, it takes a profound lapse of contractor quality control to leave a rag inside the fuel line of a $2-billion satellite – a fault that is believed to have resulted in significant tension between the Air Force and Lockheed. The aerospace branch has, I have been told, asked the company for financial compensation.

One space industry insider, who spoke with The Diplomat on condition of anonymity, says lapses like the forgotten rag indicate a lack of experience in the lower ranks of U.S. space contractors. “It was probably a mix all too common in the USAF programs: 80-year-old PhDs and 20-year-old college grads.” Periodic collapses in U.S. space funding, such as occurred in the 1990s, have resulted in entire missing generations of space engineers. Today, there are precious few mid-level engineers to bridge the gap between the veterans and the new hires. As a result, “the zero-practice grads make simple mistakes,” the insider says.

The satellite’s operators also betrayed some dangerous experience gaps. In the early decades of U.S. space travel, NASA and the military refined procedures for complex orbital maneuvers – and routinely practiced them. Not anymore, it seems. “They just don’t do a lot of odd or complex orbits anymore,” the insider comments. “Post-boost is becoming a lost art.”

Finally, it speaks to the size and age of the U.S. space arsenal that the Air Force felt it had no choice but to rescue AEHF-1 instead of replace it with a back-up spacecraft. “The asset inventory is getting so tight that they spent months limping the heap to its proper orbit,” the insider lamented. 

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