Frank Cepollina takes repair calls to new heights.
- By Robert Zimmerman
- Air & Space magazine, May 2010
(Page 5 of 5)
If the space station test goes well, Cepollina hopes to work out a deal to refuel several NASA and military satellites that are still in perfect working order except for lack of fuel. He envisions those missions jump-starting a commercial business to refuel and extend the lives of communications satellites that produce billions of dollars in revenue. “Once [refueling is demonstrated], the whole system could be turned over to commercial contractors,” says Cepollina.
Akin agrees, although he thinks that to be affordable, an operational system would probably have to use a smaller, lighter robot than Dextre. And, he says, “I give Cepi full props” for taking the lead in proving the feasibility of robotic servicing.
Cepollina seems worried only by the prospect of competition. A Swedish company, Orbital Satellite Services, is developing a spacecraft tug, based on the European SMART-1 moon probe, to extend the lives of commercial communications satellites by serving as a new propulsion system. It’s a simpler and likely cheaper alternative to refueling, with no capability (at least initially) to handle more complicated repairs. Dennis Wingo, a principal in Orbital Satellite Services who has been working on plans for commercial satellite servicing for years, says the company already has one “hard, signed contract,” although it has yet to nail down the financing it needs for a refueling mission.
But Cepollina has decades of experience, a dedicated team, and now, approval and funding for a test on the space station. If this turns into a race, you might not want to bet against him.
Robert Zimmerman’s latest book is The Universe in a Mirror: The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It (Princeton, 2008).