Redefining Mission Success in Space

Mission success is often defined as things going smoothly as planned, with no major upsets in achieving the desired outcome. For our commercial customers, mission success is about the availability and reliability of the service they receive from Intelsat General. IGC strives for this kind of mission success for all our customers. But in many ways, our government counterparts have a different definition of mission success.

Intelsat is a major satellite system operator where affordability and mission success are critical to its viability as a commercial entity. Without both affordability and mission success, our business would ultimately fail, either financially or technically. As with any enterprise, the competitive marketplace is our harshest critic, so we are constantly balancing affordability and mission success as we acquire, launch and operate our network.

 

In contrast, the U.S. government seeks more of a zero-risk strategy toward mission success. U.S. government space programs often involve complex satellites supporting multiple missions, all using just one type of launch vehicle, where failure would place unacceptable pressure on already fragile constellations. To prevent this, risk is often “bought down” on certain programs to a minuscule level by spending more on redundant designs, double- and triple-checking assemblies, and multiple back-up systems.

The result of this approach is billion-dollar satellites and very expensive launch programs. And the cycle repeats itself. The push to eliminate risk drives costs up exponentially, yet risk can never be completely eliminated. Mission assurance is often achieved by sacrificing affordability.

Today there is a growing chorus questioning whether this is a sustainable model in the current fiscal environment. I believe the answer is No, and this reflex to eliminate risk at the cost of affordability must change. In addition to being costly, the current approach also does not make the government satellite fleet more resilient.

We know from experience how to combat risk. IGC operates 51 satellites, more than 140 gateways and teleports, and 36,000 miles of fiber. Our operations are designed to give us a maximum amount of diversity and resiliency. But again — risk can never be completely eliminated. Space is still a risky business and so we accept a small amount of risk in our satellite and launch programs. Costs quickly become prohibitive in trying to retire that risk. So we anticipate failure scenarios and develop recovery plans. We have designed a network that can support anomalies through fleet planning, overlapping capabilities and acquisition tempo.

Beyond the launch phase of a mission, Intelsat and other commercial companies look for other ways to reduce risk while also maintaining affordability. One key way that we increase mission and information assurance is the automation of our satellite operations. Over time, automation can create a more affordable process, but this has not been the reason for Intelsat to automate certain functions.

Any measurement of “mission success” must include planning for failures and developing best practices over time that enable those plans to be affordable, responsive, and resilient to the risks associated with being a space operator. There are lessons to draw from the commercial approach to mission success that would help the U.S. government better insert affordability and resiliency into its current space programs and architecture.