NASA's satellite pit stop project runs out of gas

OSAM-1 – expensive, late, difficult, and no longer what the market needs?

NASA has finally pulled the plug on its ambitious mission to refuel and service working satellites via its OSAM-1 demonstrator.

The On-orbit, Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing 1 (OSAM-1) demonstrator was to have grappled, refueled, and relocated a government-owned satellite.

However, citing cost and technical challenges, the US space agency has opted to discontinue the project.

The decision will be a blow to the workforce at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and leadership has said it is "reviewing how to mitigate the impact of the cancellation."

The decision comes a month after workforce cuts were announced at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

OSAM-1 was not short on ambition. The plan was to rendezvous with Landsat-7, a US satellite launched in 1999, refuel it with at least 10 kg of hydrazine, and assemble a communications antenna. An attached Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot (SPIDER) payload would take care of assembly duties.

It followed a succession of NASA on-orbit spacecraft repairs. However, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle and the agency's increasingly risk-averse attitude to astronauts and extra-vehicular activities, NASA hoped pursuing a robotic option would kickstart a satellite servicing industry.

The first contracts were awarded in 2016, and the original plan was to be ready to launch in the second half of 2020. However, an increase in scope – not least the addition of SPIDER – and costs resulted in the inevitable delays.

Even after rebaselining the cost and schedule in April 2022, it appeared that the OSAM-1 project would likely head well north of $2 billion and miss its December 2026 launch date, according to a report [PDF] last year from NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) watchdog.

In its report, the OIG laid the blame for many of OSAM-1's woes at the door of Maxar, the prime contractor for the mission. The watchdog said: "NASA and Maxar officials acknowledged that Maxar underestimated the scope and complexity of the work, lacked full understanding of NASA technical requirements, and were deficient in necessary expertise."

The issues experienced by Maxar reached the point where NASA had to step in and provide extra services and labor to keep development moving. Then there was the challenge of keeping Landsat-7 running past the five years initially planned for its mission duration, which also required NASA funding.

As well as the "continued technical, cost and scheduled challenges" of the project, NASA noted a "broader community evolution away from refueling unprepared spacecraft." SpaceLogistics' Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) is a good example of an operational servicing vehicle that eschews refueling in favor of a spacecraft that can dock with existing satellites to extend their lives.

Interestingly, while OSAM-1 was short on technical expertise from its contractor, thanks in part to the lack of incentive inherent in the contracts drawn up by NASA, it was not short of funding.

According to the OIG, NASA had requested $808.5 million as of July 2023, but Congress enacted $1.5 billion in the same period, demonstrating robust support from lawmakers. ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like