One Last Thank You for General Chilton and IS-603

Earlier this month retired General Kevin Chilton was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame, in a ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was a richly deserved honor and everyone at Intelsat General sends General Chilton our congratulations.

As many in the space industry know, Intelsat owes a special piece of gratitude to General Chilton. Long before he made general or assumed command of U.S. Strategic Command, Chilton was the pilot on the maiden 1992 flight of the space shuttle Endeavor. In a daring, first of its kind three man spacewalk, the crew of the Endeavor retrieved and repaired a damaged Intelsat satellite, Intelsat 603.

This on-orbit service and repair riveted the nation’s attention in 1992, leading many national news broadcasts. What wasn’t widely reported was the successful and productive lifespan of IS-603 after its successful repair. The satellite is still operating, still carrying customer traffic and has delivered 20 years of reliable service since being serviced in orbit.  It will be retired next January after producing over $800M of value for broadcasters.

Fast forward twenty years. Not only has General Chilton retired, but the space shuttle fleet has been retired as well. Amazingly, there is currently no way for the United States to accomplish the kind of on-orbit repair mission that Chilton led so long ago.  This is an area in which we’ve actually gone backwards over the past two decades.  In spite of the tremendous advances in the use of robotics in the manufacturing and medical areas, these investments have yet to be leveraged for space applications.

That’s a shame, because as my colleague Bryan Benedict wrote here last year, on-orbit servicing provides many benefits. Satellites can be refueled, extending their operational lifespan. They can be repaired, as was the case with IS-603. And an on-orbit servicing capacity one day could even help address the increasingly serious issue of orbital debris.

Intelsat General is currently in discussions with NASA to identify what can be done in this area.   We enthusiastically support the vision of NASA Goddard’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) when they state “America depends on GEO satellites for defense, communication, science, and weather monitoring. Refueling and maintaining these costly assets can keep them operating longer in space in the right orbit, giving the nation more value from its initial investment.”

We’re convinced a public/private partnership can produce viable servicing solutions of value to both the USG and the commercial sector. We’re ready to do our part. General Chilton has given us a shining example of what’s possible. Now we need to identify how to make tomorrow’s successes possible.