Hard lessons from hosted payloads

Multiparty coordination key to smooth running programs

Editor's Note: The attribution of RayMing Chang in this article was corrected at 9:55 a.m. Thursday, March 15, 2012.

The U.S. government has been managing hosted payloads for 50 years, and over that time the key lesson learned is that details count. A panel of industry and government experts discussed the collected wisdom of decades of space operations and the steps needed to accelerate and streamline the process of approving, building and deploying hosted payloads at the Satellite 2012 conference in Washington D.C. on March 12.

One of the challenges facing the government’s hosted-payload efforts is there is a disparity in development times between payloads and satellites, said Bob Caffrey, program manager for NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer program. Due to multiple layers of approvals and requirements, it can take five years or more to prepare a payload for deployment as opposed to two years for satellites, making it difficult to match payloads with satellites, he said.

Based on NASA’s experience, Caffrey said the agency has learned several lessons about developing and deploying hosted payloads that include:

  • The high cost of launch vehicles is making NASA and industry more interested in hosted platforms.
  • Choosing between spacecraft manufacturers versus satellite owners/operators. Both options have benefits and disadvantages that depend on the size of the spacecraft and the payload.
  • Spacecraft accommodations versus price -- competition is needed to drive costs down.
  • Foreign launch vehicles vs. a space transportation policy. Policy needs to be modified to accommodate a payload exception.

In the future, space procurement needs to find a good deal, said Jack Nicholson, a senior staffer with General Dynamics C4 Systems. This process can change for industry from administration to administration as the policy shifts, he said. In addition to looking for a good deal from government, satellite communications providers also need to be able to satisfy market demands. One challenge facing potential Ultra High Frequency radio payloads is that there are more satellites in orbit than there is bandwidth to support them, he said.

Hosted-payload programs also need champions in government to help move programs along, Nicholson said. Payload efforts can founder if no funds are backing them at requirements offices and no one in the command chain pushing the program forward.

Based on experiences from Air Force programs such as the GPS III satellites, industry and hosted-payload developers have several lessons to learn, said RayMing Chang, GPS III advanced capabilities program manager with the Air Force's Global Positioning Systems Directorate. The definition of hosted payload depends on the context, and the defintion of hosted payload varies within the Air Force, he said. Moreover, the Hosted Payload Alliance, NASA and the Navy all have different definitions of hosted payload.

One lesson learned is that If a hosted payload interferes with the primary payload's schedule or performance, then efforts should be made to integrate a mass simulator or have a concept of operations that anticipates turning off the offending payload.

Another lesson is that clear requirements are desirable. This is because there usually so many stakeholders in most satellite and payload systems that coordinating them is both vital and very challenging, Chang said. To achieve proper coordination, well defined project plans are necessary, he added.

About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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