America's Space Weakness


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. 

Jon Woolery
February 14, 2014 at 03:17

The use of control nozzle fuel to move the satellite into its permanent orbit–in lieu of using the inoperable booster rocket–depletes the amount of nozzle fuel for maintaining the satellite’s position. Is the satellite’s useful life thereby shortened? Presumably it is, although I saw no mention of this rather salient point.

January 11, 2012 at 15:25

How are you guys confused? The article pretty plainly states that our weakness is that we lost the brains we had working on space stuff. Our satellite fleet is aging quickly and while we have more birds up there than anyone else, we are slowly losing our advantage. One of today’s satellites is packed with enough tech that each one is worth 3-4 of our 20-50 year old satellites.

Yang Zi’s comment about the US being hijacked by the darker impulses is pretty damn spot on to.

January 11, 2012 at 01:23

Don’t they count equipment and supplies in and then count them out of assembly areas like what is done in operating theatres to ensure that swabs or instruments aren’t left inside someone being operated on?
If they don’t, then they damn well should.
Why would a rag be inside a fuel line in the first place?
If I was the slightest bit conspiracy minded I might start thinking it was deliberate sabotage.

January 10, 2012 at 22:54

Its a good thing this author didnt misspell any words on the first draft of this article, otherwise (at least by his own way of thinking) he would have never published it.

January 10, 2012 at 22:51

How is it rediculous? I dont understand the last sentence but he is right. Jake, you would really throw away a $2 billion satilite over a ($5) wash cloth? The author of this article is wrong to say the U.S is “low” on satilites, we have more than any other country. I dont see how having the most is “low.”

January 10, 2012 at 17:01

Me too. How could they know it when the sat was in orbit with no cams or other stuff to monitor what’s in the fuel lines.

January 10, 2012 at 14:32

Why would anyone abandon an expensive equipment when it can be salvaged by a careful maneuver? It’s like someone abandoning a car because their first attempt at parallel parking hit a curb.

John R.
January 9, 2012 at 23:58

Na, Rather a shortsightness stemming from budget constrains , while there is no immidiate use from civil space research, for military hardware there is always money a plenty

January 9, 2012 at 23:36

I just don’t see how anyone could know there was a rag in one of the fuel lines.

January 9, 2012 at 23:24

@yang zi
Have you any idea how ridiculous your comments are? You should really lay off the Kool-Aid for a while.

January 9, 2012 at 20:24

How can someone call trying to save 2 billion a sign of weakness? Sounds more like a sign of sudden sensibility. I think the US should be applauded for its new fiscal awareness. Something else this article misses is that computer assistance of orbital placement has increased to such a degree since the 1990s that engineers rarely have to step in… this was good for them. I think the US has done well here. And I’m further encouraged by hearing they’ll go after LM for the cash. Good job Yanks!

January 9, 2012 at 20:22

The root cause is one that is all to common in many industries, not just Aerospace. Cutting costs by way of hiring children to do grown-up work.
Today it seems that the $25 Billion that the USA spent to put a Man on the Moon was money well spent, in that it layed the groundwork for the technical industries that have made 21st Century life possible for all the world.
They need to spend another $250 Billion on Aerospace to lay the foundation for another 50 years of innovation and to keep ahead of the pack.
And to Yang Zi, what, and China doesn’t have a “Space Force”? They are working as fast as they can manage in order to get to the same level as the USA was 30 years ago.

January 9, 2012 at 19:38

This article is either blindly biased or written by someone very inept. What were they supposed to do? Let $2B burn in the atmosphere?

January 9, 2012 at 19:30

I think the decline comments refers to a combination of the lack of a backup being built in conjunction with the primary, so there was no real option other than to rescue the existing satellite, and the lack of practice in unusual or complex orbital mechanics.

January 9, 2012 at 17:31

-_- trying to save a 2 billion dollar piece of equipment rather than making a new one is now a sign of American decline? it would probably take longer than several months to build and launch a new one anyways. not sure about the lost generation but things like this is how one builds future procedures and how the inexperienced gain said experience, all in all it worked out int he end with just a couple months delay.

yang zi
January 9, 2012 at 14:53

A hackling piece. Sounds like describing a Russia situation. Of course you want to rescue the sattellite, it is $2billion dollars! Does billion mean anything anymore?

Sure US is short of sattellites, if it does, other countries are in a sattellite famine.

One thing this article does, is to admit US has a space force.

US is hijacked by the dark impulses of human, it is walking on the edges of good and evil.

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