RESTORE-L Passes PDR As Future Remains Cloudy

RESTORE-L Passes PDR As Future Remains Cloudy

NASA’s satellite servicing technology development and demonstration mission, Restore-L, passed a milestone today, successfully clearing Preliminary Design Review (PDR). The Trump Administration wants to downscale the program significantly however, and while the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have rallied to its defense, only one approved the money needed to keep it on course.

Managed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, MD, Restore-L’s future has been in doubt since the retirement last year of its primary congressional champion, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).   That was followed by the arrival of the Trump Administration, which proposed a complete restructuring of the program in the FY2018 budget request.

Under the Trump plan, technology development would continue, but demonstrating the technology by launching a refueling mission to the Landsat-7 satellite in 2020 would be terminated.  NASA would “collaborate” on its remaining technology development program with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has a related Remote Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program.

Restore-L is focused on servicing satellites in low Earth orbit (generally considered to be 1,200 miles or 2,000 kilometers or less), while DARPA’s RSGS is for satellites in much higher geosynchronous orbits (22,500 miles or 35,800 kilometers).

Space Systems Loral  (SSL) won the contract last year to build the Restore-L spacecraft for the Landsat-7 demonstration mission, which involves using robotic systems to grab the satellite and refuel it.  Landsat-7 has been in orbit since 1999.  GSFC managed construction of the satellite so is thoroughly familiar its design.

The PDR took place over three days at SSL’s facilities.  In a statement today, SSL said the program will now move on to the detailed design phase.

That assumes the Landsat-7 demonstration portion of the program will continue despite the Trump Administration’s desire to scrap it.

The relative role of government and industry is at the crux of the debate.  “Satellite servicing” can have several meanings — refueling, relocating, or repairing are three — and its advocates claim government and commercial satellite operators are eager to have access to such services.  One issue, then, is that if there is such demand, the private sector, not the government, should develop the systems and offer the services to government and commercial customers while the government is limited only to developing basic technologies.

The Trump budget proposal follows that philosophy.  Restore-L was funded at $130 million in FY2017, but the FY2018 request is only $45.3 million.  As explained in NASA’s budget request, Restore-L would be restructured to “reduce its cost and better position it to support a nascent commercial satellite servicing industry.”

Others think the government needs to do more.  At the moment, Congress is siding with those who think NASA should play a bigger role.

The House Appropriations Committee included favorable language in its report on the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that funds NASA, saying it “strongly supports” Restore-L and provided the requested funding level “for this important program.”

The requested funding level, however, is for the Trump-proposed restructured program, not the original plan with the Landsat-7 refueling.

The Senate Appropriations Committee went much further, not only praising the program, but providing $130 million, the same as its FY2017 level.  At the Senate CJS subcommittee’s June 29 hearing on the NASA budget request, Mikulski’s successor in the Senate, Chris Van Hollen, and West Virginia’s two Senators, Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, stridently defended Restore-L.  West Virginia University participates in the program.

The Trump proposal calls for NASA and DARPA to collaborate with each other.  The Senate appropriators agreed the two programs are complementary and encouraged NASA to collaborate with DARPA, but in sense of sharing “expertise and lessons learned’ and accepting “any financial contribution from DARPA…”

SSL’s Vice President of Government Operations, Mike Gold, told today that “Congress has sent an unequivocal message regarding the benefits of Restore-L specifically and satellite servicing generally.”  Satellite servicing capabilities “will benefit not only NASA but will also bolster the resilience of our vital national security assets in Low Earth Orbit.”

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