Tim Furniss

Satellites failing in space. Spacecraft problems delaying launches. Launch failures. This has been the story of the past year - and the nightmare may not be over. What has gone wrong?

Today, we depend on satellites to such an extent that it can directly affect us. In May last year, a Hughes Galaxy IV satellite failed and for a whole weekend put 90% of the pagers used in the USA out of action.

That gives a whole new meaning to the famous term "space spin-off".

If a couple of Astra satellites went off-line, we could miss the big match on satellite TV. So, when satellites go wrong, we notice.


Satellites broke down in space 10 years ago and no-one noticed much. The issue now perhaps is why, when we have advanced technically so much in 10 years, do they fail at all?

The problem, it seems, is that because communications is such big business, run by private companies rather than government or publicly owned organisations, customers want their spacecraft in orbit earning money as soon as possible.

Satellite manufacturers are being asked to churn out satellites in less than two years - and that is fast by industry standards.

Each satellite's payload is now more and more tailored to customers' specific requirements, placing more pressure on manufacturers.

Launcher companies are frustrated, with rockets ready to go but fewer satellites to fly. And, as we have seen recently, when launchers do take off, there is no guarantee that the satellite will reach its destination.

The last 10 months have been quite extraordinary. Three Titan IVs and two Delta IIIs have failed, resulting in the loss of five satellites, worth over $2 billion.


The USA's most powerful unmanned boosters are grounded while investigations are made into the various types of failure.

There are two possible contributing factors. The consolidation of several different launcher units into one corporation is one. Boeing has taken on McDonnell Douglas' Delta; Lockheed has Martin Marietta's Titans. Streamlining costs and the workforce could be an influence on quality control.

Finally, most company employees lived with Macs and PCs before they went to work. Everything is automated, including quality control.

In the old rocket days, engineers really got their hands dirty inside engine nozzles and turbopumps.

They knew the feel of rockets. Their personality. Maybe the loss of that older breed of engineer is also an influence.

Source: Flight Daily News