Following DoD lead, NASA to outsource satellite communications requirements

After 35 years of operating its own fleet of data relay satellites, NASA is opting out of the business, moving ahead with plans to outsource that mission to an industry it helped create.

NASA pioneered communications satellite technology and supported its commercialization in the 1960s, but continues to operate the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) system. The geostationary-orbiting TDRS satellites enable the agency to stay in continuous touch with its scientific and crewed spacecraft, including the International Space Station.

The latest such satellite, TDRS-M launched in 2017. If all goes according to plan, TDRS-M will be the last of its kind, said Phil McAlister, NASA director of commercial spaceflight development.

Beginning in the mid- to late 2020s, NASA will begin offloading its mission data relay requirements to commercial systems, McAlister said Dec. 11 at a Washington Space Business Roundtable Luncheon. The transition is expected to be complete in the 2030s, as the aging TDRS system loses global coverage.

“Today, it doesn’t make sense for the government to own our own satellite communications system,” McAlister said. U.S. national space policy calls for government agencies to rely on commercial capabilities to the maximum practical extent, and satellite communications, as a relatively mature industry, is ripe for outsourcing, he added.

Through the Communications Services Program (CSP), NASA aims to foster private-sector development of TDRS replacement capabilities, McAlister said. The agency has budgeted some $300 million for the effort over the next five years, beginning in 2020.

NASA will dictate top-level CSP requirements only, leaving the technological and operational approach to the private sector, McAlister said.  “We just want commercial services that are reliable and cost effective,” he said. “If you can do the mission we need to talk.”

The CSP will be carried out in three phases, the first of which entails identifying agency requirements and communicating those to industry, McAlister said. That phase, which also includes program planning, is already underway.

The second phase, which under the notional schedule laid out by McAlister begins around 2021, features demonstrations of relevant commercial capabilities and is open ended to accommodate new systems and technologies. NASA will begin acquiring TDRS replacement capabilities in the final phase, which would start around 2023.

McAlister said the CSP continues a NASA outsourcing trend that began in the mid-2000s, when the agency launched efforts to nurture commercial cargo and crew transportation services to the space station. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has been moving in a similar direction with some of its satellite communications requirements.

Any company currently providing satellite communications services to the DoD is presumed eligible to compete for CSP work, McAlister said.

Among the Pentagon’s go-to providers is SES Government Solutions, a subsidiary of global satellite operator SES that was created to serve government markets. SES owns satellite fleets in both geostationary and medium Earth orbit.

NASA does not intend to furnish equipment to its commercial CSP vendors, McAlister said, adding that the agency wants end-to-end services. The program will include on-ramps to accommodate emerging capabilities as the industry continues to innovate.

With the CSP budget slated to ramp up in the next few years, NASA intends to fund multiple demonstrations, to be followed by the selection of multiple companies to provide services on a competitive basis. McAlister laid out an operational scenario in which NASA mission managers would competitively award task orders among the prequalified vendors.

NASA’s desire is to be one of many users of CSP capabilities, but will only take responsibility for meeting its own specific needs, McAlister said. TDRS satellites have long provided data relay services to other U.S. government agencies, and he invited these agencies to participate in the CSP and bring their own money and requirements to the table.

The CSP will cover NASA’s data relay needs for satellites operating in geostationary orbit and below, McAlister said. Missions with NASA-unique requirements, such as planetary probes, will continue to use government-operated systems including the agency’s ground-based Deep Space Network, he said.