The 20th Anniversary of the First Commercial Lunar Flyby Rescue Mission—Jerry Salvatore

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the remarkable efforts that recovered the Hughes HGS-1 after a failed launch.  This satellite launched as AsiaSat was placed in an unusable 51-degree inclined orbit after the fourth stage of the Proton launch vehicle failed.  A recovery plan that involved two lunar flybys was developed and implemented.  I documented this historic journey a year later and presented it at the 50th International Astronautical Congress in Amsterdam on October 4, 1999. This definitive paper describes the complex rescue limitations in detail, discusses the numerous mission considerations that had to be addressed, defines the nominal rescue maneuvers plan, and documents all (planned and ad hoc) maneuvers during the 68-day journey. This document will be posted on the Hughes heritage website for all to read the facts of the rescue.

May 13, 2018 marks 20 years since HGS-1 flew around the moon for the first time in a risky, epic rescue mission that attempted to transfer a Hughes HS601 HP spacecraft stranded in a highly inclined (51.6 degrees) geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO, via a Proton upper stage failure ) into a useful geosynchronous orbit (GSO, similar to Syncom 2).

This mission was actually initiated on April 10, 1998, had an ad hoc second flyby of the moon on June 6, 1998 and achieved the best possible GSO orbit on June 16, 1998 with an inclination of about 7.5 degrees relative to the equator and a longitude south of Hawaii.

During this historic rescue, I wrote two US patents for Hughes that used single and multiple lunar flybys to assist transfer from any GTO to a GEO (geostationary orbit). Both patents were awarded in late 2000.

In the interim, a small company Innovative Orbital Design (IOD) filed suit against Hughes claiming we had infringed on their intellectual property. This is the same company that claimed to be responsible for giving Hughes the idea to use the moon for rescue with Belbruno’s “Fuzzy Boundary” theory. The court found that IOD’s claims were without merit and dismissed the suit by summary judgement. The court did not allow the case to proceed to trial and fined IOD for certain Hughes costs of defense. The initial legal and political attacks on this innovative Hughes accomplishment were successfully refuted.

Ironically, on the 10th anniversary (2008) of the HGS-1 flyby, a Lockheed Martin spacecraft, AMC-14, owned by SES, experienced a similar failure of the Proton upper stage resulting in a similar stranded orbit to HGS-1.  I was employed by SES for one month to study a possible lunar flyby rescue.  The lunar geometry in this case was near perfect and a double lunar flyby would restore roughly eight years of the nominal 15 – year GEO mission.  The only requirement was for Boeing (who now owned my original patents) to allow the rescue to occur.  Unfortunately, SES had a $50 million law suit against Boeing to replace a satellite, lost during a sea launch explosion, at the original cost. Boeing required dismissal of the law suit, SES refused and the rescue mission was aborted.  Amen to any previous or future commentary of whether the patents were valid or unenforceable. In hindsight, though, I regret writing the patents that precluded a “near perfect” rescue of HGS-1’s stranded younger sister a decade later.

On the 15th anniversary (2013) a bombshell article, “Beyond GEO”, was published on the Space Review website (and republished on the Hughes heritage website). The story told by Rex Ridenoure reveals that an alternate rescue plan to the practical one that I devised was supported by Hughes personnel (Chris Cutroneo, Loren Slafer, and Cesar Ocampo). Rex acknowledges that Slafer told him on January 28 (a couple of weeks after his initial proposal) that the plan was impractical. I learned of this impossible plan from Ocampo a month later and instructed him not to reveal the official Hughes approach. Unfortunately, Rex reveals that Ocampo told Belbruno of the Hughes approach a month after he was instructed not to be a “leaker”. This occurred two weeks before our first maneuver Rex reveals there were subsequent leaks during the entire mission.

After several months in the blind with no contribution to this mission, Rex admits that he and Belbruno initiated their own PR campaign to sell their story about how the core enabling idea of using the Moon to salvage AsiaSat 3 entered into the option trade space at Hughes; and to insure this story was not buried by the personal or corporate motivations that apparently wanted to squelch the facts. Rex concluded in the article that “the story got out and stuck”. The rebuttal to “Beyond GEO” was published two months later on both the Space Review and Hughes heritage websites as 2 essays: “The Real Story”, part 1-Jerry Salvatore, mission director, and part 2-Mark Skidmore, project manager.

Remarkably after 20 years there still is controversy surrounding the facts of this recovery effort.  On March 10, 2018, Chris Cutroneo wrote a blog for the Hughes heritage website entitled “HGS-1 Mission–Setting the Facts Straight.” This blog resurrects the Ridenoure and Belbruno PR campaign described above and purports to be factual. While Chris is entitled to his personal opinions, he is not allowed to distort the facts in his blog.

Chris Cutroneo, Loren Slafer and Cesar Ocampo worked with Ridenoure and Belbruno in January 1998 on an untenable rescue plan. Chris confirms that these Hughes personnel were told by the HGS project office in February to terminate all conversations with these outsiders. Subsequently, Cutroneo and Slafer voluntarily chose not to contribute or consult during any phase of the rescue mission. Chris’ statement “I relayed Cesar’s calculations and Rex’s information to Jerry via email, mentioning Rex’s company as well as the fuzzy boundary theory and that it was a novel theory but impractical” is absolutely “fake news”. As stated above I learned of this absurd plan from Ocampo in late February, well into the planning phase of the actual mission. This invented fact would apparently support his opinion in the blog, “But I believe we did have their idea in hand that helped us come up with the idea to do a lunar flyby and mimic the Apollo missions”.

Chris’ description of Cesar Ocampo’s position is correct. Cesar is a brilliant trajectory analyst who verified my original thesis and performed all trajectory studies during the entire mission. I named him a co-author on the definitive paper as well as the two patents issued because of his analytical contributions to the rescue mission. I was his principal sponsor when he was named  “Hispanic Engineer of the Year” in 1998. However, I learned from Rex’s paper 15 years later that: He divulged our approach to Belbruno in late March; He continued his leaks to Belbruno during the mission; He refused to obey the HGS program office in April about public discussions of the mission; He wrote a paper seven years after the mission that lifted key paragraphs from the definitive paper (which has never been posted on the internet), embraced the Ridenoure PR propaganda and accused Hughes of unethical behavior.

Five years ago, Cesar shared a quote by me during the mission on the heritage website: “There are those who make things happen, others who watch it happen, and the rest who ask what happened. And Jerry falls in the first category.” In his response to my article on the HGS-1 mission Cesar adds, ‘I will be forever grateful to Hughes and individuals there, for having given me the opportunity to spend four wonderful years at Hughes, and the opportunity to work on HGS-1 and other missions. This has been a major highlight in my career.’

Chris further states in a final note, “HGS-1 achieved only a short period of time in GEO orbit post recovery.  There was a more optimum time (better Earth, Moon, Sun geometry) to pull off the recovery plan, 6 months later than when we started it. It would have achieved a much longer life span (years), orbitally, for the satellite.  It was unclear to me as to why this option was not selected.”

This is the second incorrect statement in his blog.  I refer him to the trajectory design section of the definitive paper to help him understand the real options available.  The fact is that given the lunar/spacecraft orbit geometry and spacecraft propulsion capability, no GEO orbit was achievable with the lunar flyby until 2029.  Only GSO inclined orbits were achievable at about 2-year intervals.  The first opportunity in April 1998 was selected.  The resulting GSO orbit with an initial inclination of about 7.5 degrees was designed to become GEO (zero inclination) in 2007 using solar/lunar perturbations.  The spacecraft was operated by Hughes Global Services for several years. The US Navy leased several transponders and it provided service to the Atlantic Fleet up to its deorbit.  It was operational on 9/11 when an urgent call came for more capacity.  Unfortunately, HGS-1 ran out of fuel and was placed in a multiyear pendulous GSO disposal orbit in late 2002 that positioned it over the dateline in 2007.  This would minimize any possible collision hazard as the spacecraft traveled in the equator with no neighbors.  It worked!

I recorded my views about this mission in an article in the July 15, 2013 Space Review entitledThe Chief Technologist’s View of the HGS-1 Mission.”  Mark Skidmore, Hughes program manager for the recovery mission, also presented his views in the July 8, 2013 Space Review in an article entitled “An alternative view of the HGS-1 salvage mission.”  I believe that two articles provide the most complete and correct description of the events surrounding the recovery mission design and implementation.