July 14, 2024

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NASA cancels the OSAM-1 satellite service technology mission

NASA cancels the OSAM-1 satellite service technology mission

WASHINGTON — NASA has canceled a multibillion-dollar project to demonstrate satellite servicing technologies that has suffered widespread delays and cost overruns.

In a brief statement issued on March 1, NASA announced that it had completed the On-Orbit Service, Assembly and Manufacturing (OSAM) Mission 1. OSAM-1 was developed to refuel the Landsat 7 spacecraft and then perform the on-orbit assembly of the satellite's Ka-band antenna. .

NASA said it canceled OSAM-1 “due to ongoing technical, cost and schedule challenges, and the broader community's evolution away from refueling unrigged spacecraft, resulting in a lack of a committed partner.”

The agency said that, after formal notification from Congress of its decision, it will begin the orderly shutdown process, which will include transferring the devices and “pursuing potential partnerships or alternative uses for the devices.”

NASA said it will also review how to mitigate the impact of the cancellation on the workforce at Goddard Space Flight Center, which was flying OSAM-1. NASA spokesman Jimmy Russell said there are approximately 450 NASA employees and contractors working on OSAM-1, and that NASA is “committed to supporting the project workforce according to plan through fiscal year 2024.”

OSAM-1 began about a decade ago as Restore-L, with the goal of launching in 2020 to refuel Landsat 7. The mission was renamed OSAM-1 in 2020 with the addition of payloads to perform assembly and manufacturing activities in space. .

However, the mission suffered from significant cost overruns and delays. As of April 2022, the total cost of the mission, which was expected to be between $626 million and $753 million, had risen to $2.05 billion and its launch had been delayed until December 2026. NASA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), In the October 2023 reportIt concluded that the project would likely suffer additional overruns, with an estimated cost upon completion of $2.17 billion and launch between March and June 2027.

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The report concluded that a major factor in OSAM-1's problems was the performance of Maxar, which supplies both the spacecraft's bus as well as the robotic payload, called the Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER), under contracts totaling nearly $316 million. Maxar delivered the OSAM-1 bus in September 2023, two and a half years behind schedule, and was operating more than two years behind with deliveries of SPIDER components, the OIG found.

Maxar acknowledged in the report that it “significantly reduced the scope and complexity of the work” in modifying one of its 1300 Series space buses, designed for commercial communications satellites in geostationary orbit, for use on OSAM-1 in low Earth orbit. The company also experienced technical issues with SPIDER as well as problems managing subcontractors. NASA said in September 2023 that it had removed one element of SPIDER called MakerSat, which would have made a composite beam, to focus on servicing and assembly technologies.

That report attributed the problems with the OSAM-1 bus and SPIDER to the use of fixed-price contracts that, the OIG concluded, gave NASA no way to incentivize the company's performance. NASA has intervened at times, providing an estimated $2 million in labor to help with the OSAM-1 bus in 2022 and 2023.

“In our discussions with Maxar officials, they acknowledged that they no longer benefit from their work at OSAM-1,” the OIG noted in its report. “Furthermore, project officials stated that OSAM-1 does not appear to be a high priority for Maxar in terms of the quality of its crew.”

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Maxar spokesman Eric Glass said the company has delivered to NASA a pallet for the SPIDER payload, as well as one of its three robotic arms, with the other two robotic arms scheduled to be delivered later this year. “While we are disappointed in the decision to discontinue the program, we are committed to supporting NASA in pursuing potential new partnerships or alternative uses for the hardware while the shutdown process is completed,” he said.

One problem OSAM-1 did not face was funding. Congress has regularly bypassed NASA's requests for mission funding. The OIG report noted that NASA requested $808.5 million for OSAM-1 between 2016 and 2023, but Congress appropriated more than $1.48 billion. NASA requested $227 million for OSAM-1 for fiscal year 2024, and both the House and Senate versions of spending bills fully funded the mission.

The cancellation of OSAM-1 comes as many companies are commercially pursuing satellite servicing technologies, in many cases using more collaborative approaches such as designing satellites with refueling ports that reduce the complexity of refueling. At the annual meeting of CONFERS, a satellite services industry group, in October 2023, an audience member noted that there had been little discussion of OSAM-1 in conference presentations.

Bo Nasz, who leads the development of satellite servicing capabilities at NASA, acknowledged the difficulty of developing a spacecraft designed to refuel a spacecraft that is “unprepared” for servicing. “It's really hard,” he said. The value of OSAM-1, he said, is to demonstrate robotic technologies that can be transferred to other applications while gaining experience in satellite servicing.

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“We can help convince the consumer that we know how to do it and that it is ready,” he concluded. “I think so, but I also think it's hard.”