WASHINGTON — 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.