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Lawmakers Call For Halt To DARPA Program: Robots Repairing Satellites

Posted by Colin Clark on

WASHINGTON: Three influential House lawmakers have asked DARPA in a Jan. 25 letter to review a robotic space repair program to see if it violates the National Space Policy by competing with private-sector efforts and to put the program on hold until the review is complete. The National Space Policy requires “that the government not build or buy systems that “preclude, discourage or compete” with commercial systems. Orbital ATK is building a system it believes competes directly with the DARPA initiative, known as Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites.

It’s an intriguing program. DARPA’s goal is to develop robotic systems that can fix damaged satellites 22,000 miles up. In the words of the program web page, it would be designed  to “make house calls in space.”

But Rep. Jim Bridenstine, one of the most active lawmakers on space issues today (and possibly the next head of NASA); Rep. Barbara Comstock, chair of the House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee on research and technology; and Rep. Rob Bishop, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, signed a letter today asking Acting DARPA Director Steven Walker to review RSGS to ensure it complies with the National Space Policy’s requirement that the government not build or buy systems that “preclude, discourage or compete” with commercial systems.

The rub may be that Orbital-ATK has invested $100 million in such a system, the Orbital Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV). In April last year, Orbital announced that the commercial satellite giant Intelsat would buy the first of the system.

The launch of the first MEV is slated for late 2018 with in-orbit testing and demonstration to be performed with an Intelsat satellite. Testing should be done by early 2019, the Intelsat announcement said. “MEV-1 will then relocate to the Intelsat satellite scheduled for the mission extension service, which is planned for a five-year period. Intelsat will also have the option to service multiple satellites using the same MEV,” the announcement says.

MEV is the product of a wholly-owned subsidiary of Orbital ATK known as Space Logistics, LLC.

Orbital released this statement when they heard I was writing this: “Orbital ATK has strong concerns regarding DARPA’s program approach to its new Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellite (RSGS) program, which both distorts the emerging commercial market for in-space satellite servicing and violates long-standing principles of the National Space Policy. DARPA’s RSGS program will subsidize a single company with several hundred million dollars’ worth of space hardware and launch service, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer, to directly compete with commercial satellite servicing systems that Orbital ATK and other companies are developing with their own private capital. Even worse, we estimate that DARPA will provide about 75% of the program funding but retain only about 10% of its capability, a highly questionable and inefficient use of public funds.”

The company also says, as one would expect, that, “DARPA’s approach also violates both the letter and the spirit of the U.S. National Space Policy.”

The DARPA program has another interesting wrinkle. The folks who invented the Internet want to create a Consortium For Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), which would serve as “a permanent, self-sustaining ‘one-stop shop’ where industry can collaborate and engage with the U.S. Government about on-orbit servicing, as well as drive the creation of the standards that future servicing providers will follow,” according to Todd Master, the DARPA program manager. “These standards would integrate data, expertise, and experience from both government and industry while protecting commercial participants’ financial and strategic interests, and provide investors, insurers, potential customers, and other stakeholders with the confidence to pursue and engage in this promising new sector.” Once up and running, DARPA plans to “transfer” CONFERS  to industry before 2021, when it expects to demonstrate RSGS capabilities in space.

As a longtime space reporter, and one who bets President Donald Trump’s administration will favor industry over government in most showdowns, look for DARPA to lose this one — unless there are factors of which I’m ignorant.

What do you think?