Amsat is living in a brave new world where launches are fully commercialized
and nobody gets a free ride anymore. We will either adapt to that paradigm
shift or we will cease to exist.
Things were a lot different in the 1960's and 70's. In 1961 an Air Force
general had enough authority to allow Oscar 1 to be bolted to the side of his
launch vehicle. It is like this in the early days of all new technological
ventures. The internet in the early 1990's was a lot more free-wheeling before
the "suits" took notice of it and started to regulate it.
In today's world the bean counters are fully in charge, and nobody rides for
free. When you have commercial companies offering $10 million to place 100 kg
in orbit, that becomes the market price, and the only way to lower that price
is to expand the supply of launches.
This development is especially ironic because Amsat created the entire small
satellite industry. There was a time when industry and government experts
laughed at us and our little toy satellites. We proved that small satellites
are valuable and now everybody wants to launch them. A little company called
Surrey Satellite Technology grew out of Amsat endeavors.
AO-40 was a once in a lifetime opportunity. ESA offered us a 600 kilogram ride
on one of the first Ariane 5 vehicles and we voted to go for it. The reasons
for AO-40's failure have been covered before, and further analysis will not
add to the discussion. It is not a mistake to throw deep sometimes. If AO-40
had worked as designed, it would have revolutionized amateur radio. We gambled
and lost and we will most likely never see another 600 kg launch opportunity.
The Eagle project was started about a decade ago in hope of launching a more
modest HEO replacement for AO-40, and to be able to do so on a regular basis
so that a single satellite failure would not ground the entire program. This
effort was overtaken by the tidal wave of cubesats. With every single
university on Earth launching a cubesat all of the available launch
opportunities are filled with pea-pod launchers and there is no room for
Eagle, unless someone writes a check for $10 million.
Since cubesats are the only available launches, Amsat has started the Fox
program to participate in the cubesat trend. Amsat can help its case by making
Fox the best engineered cubesat ever built, which should not be too hard
compared to some of the other cubesat designs that I have seen.
The university cubesats use amateur radio frequencies as inexpensive data
downlinks, but they do not otherwise contribute to the basis and purpose of
amateur radio as defined in part 97. Education is mentioned in part 97 but
many of these cubesat programs just barely touch on the communications aspects
of space flight.
I also don't think that most of the student built cubesats are teaching proper
engineering techniques, I wonder how many of them have gone through thermal
vacuum or radiation testing. Some cubesat groups are still purchasing off the
shelf ham HTs and simply removing the plastic case before mounting it in the
satellite, because they "don't know how to design an RF system". I doubt that
the students are learning the engineering and career skills that they will
need to survive in the real world when they get entry level jobs at Boeing or
Lockheed Martin after graduation. Nevertheless there is substantial financial
support for student built satellites which are perceived to be training and
inspiring the next generation of engineers, while ham radio has a public image
of being the last century's technology, a hobby of elderly men using Morse
code and vacuum tube radios, and nobody with money to donate cares if hams can
use a satellite to work rare DX countries. Our link to education is likely to
be one of our only ways to secure low cost launches in the future, so we had
better find ways to work with and direct the student groups toward building
well engineered, long lived satellites with a real communications mission in
We can also look around and take notice of what other groups are doing in
space. Many different forms of electric propulsion are in development or are
now flying, and this technology has the possibility to enable some of the HEO
missions that we desire. What if we had been able to propel ARRISSat into a
higher orbit instead of helplessly watch it reenter a mere six months after
deployment from the ISS? What if we had been able to nudge AO-13 away from its
destructive resonance and prevent it from reentering far too early?
Another area where Amsat has failed has been in the news media. When Amsat
does not receive credit for its accomplishments, others are free to rewrite
history and claim that they were the first to accomplish every new thing,
sometimes claiming credit for things that Amsat first did three decades ago.
The universities have professional public relations staff who know how to
plant favorable news stories in the media. When Amsat launched AO-40 some of
us tried to get the mainstream news media interested in the story, but not
having professional contacts in the media, our efforts fell flat on the floor.
The funding follows the publicity, and when Amsat misses out on the publicity,
the money goes elsewhere. How is it that we launched AO-40 with barely a
mention in the popular press or in space industry publications?
Those of you who are lapsed Amsat members and will not rejoin until a HEO is
launched really should reconsider. The membership dues are not that high, and
we still need your active participation if any of this is to come to fruition.
Giving up on Amsat by lapsing your membership pretty well insures that we will
never again have a HEO satellite.
Dan Schultz N8FGV