I was actually on vacation in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts when the first email alert hit my smartphone that Thursday morning about the SpaceX explosion at the Cape, the first of many alerts on the explosion. And it wasn’t long thereafter until the video hit the Internet as well. Oh, that video! Memories came sweeping back of some of the more dramatic past events, including the NSS 8 launch failure in 2008 on Sea Launch; the Intelsat 708 launch failure in 1996 on Long March; and of course the two Shuttle disasters, some 17 years apart (1986 and 2003).
While the inherent riskiness of this business of ours never fully leaves our consciousness, there is definitely a tendency to minimize its importance on a daily basis as we go about the business of the provision of space-based telecommunications services. The tangible reminders are never that far away, as provided, for example, by the ongoing need to secure launch insurance before every launch, but to a large extent these risks are just taken for granted. At least until…
Much of the risk is simply inherent in the physical characteristics of what it is we do, beginning with the unavoidable reality that the assets that define our business, once deployed in space, are essentially physically inaccessible to us, and in many instances are as distant as 22,300 miles above our heads. But rather than simply shrugging our shoulders, the industry has confronted this challenge head on, and in the process has brought to the forefront an incredible devotion to creativity, ingenuity and innovation, buttressed by the ability to learn from past mistakes. Where this is most preeminently manifested is in the case of advances in satellite design. We now fully comprehend the critical importance of avoidance of single point of failure design elements. The inclusion of backup systems providing full system redundancy is as second nature now as getting dressed in the morning. System control software can be uploaded from the ground to address a variety of satellite anomalies. Our understanding of orbital dynamics has enabled us to master collision avoidance techniques, and the prospect of dealing with a zombie satellite is just another day at work. On the horizon now are a variety of satellite lifetime extension techniques that will allow for even further extended utilization of space-based assets, including refueling and other possible in-orbit refurbishments.
These achievements notwithstanding, hopefully we are smart enough to recognize that it would be a mistake to rest on our laurels. Looking ahead, future challenges are more likely to increase in difficulty rather than recede, and this is particularly true as the evolving nature of the satellite telecommunications business intertwines with the distinct but related business of outer space exploration. Certainly with respect to deployment of space-based assets, the central technology is largely shared, and truly can be characterized as rocket science. Beyond that, however, the ultimate success of space exploration activities will be largely dependent on the availability of effective space-based telecommunications capabilities. Elon Musk’s dream, for example, of beginning the colonization of Mars within the next two decades would be all but unattainable in the absence of communications capabilities during and after the journey there. Indeed, space-based telecommunications and space exploration have always gone hand in hand, dating back to at least 1969, when the miracle of satellite telecommunications on a global basis then made possible by Intelsat allowed the world to witness first-hand the Apollo 11 moon landing, clearly one of the most dramatic events of the 20th century.
As we look to the future, one thing that we can be certain of is that there will be additional failures that will have to be overcome. It would be wonderful, of course, if that were not the case, but that is simply unrealistic. But one other thing that should hopefully be evident as well is that the future viability of the satellite telecommunications and space exploration businesses will continue on an ascent trajectory as long as our drive to learn the right lessons and to creatively ferret out the right solutions using the creativity, ingenuity and innovation that has brought us to where we are today is not forsaken. VS