AsiaSat-3 Rescue: The Real Story Part 2

Foreword—Steve Dorfman

A potential consequence of unedited blogs is posting of conflicting views and that is what we have with inputs from Rex Ridenoure, Jerry Salvatore and Mark Skidmore.

I’ve known Jerry Salvatore for many years and he was one of our most outstanding engineers, with many important contributions in spacecraft control and orbital dynamics. Whenever Jerry approached me with advice, as he did many times during my career at Hughes, I found it invaluable and reliable and I grew to trust his opinions and judgment. One notable example was the Asiasat 3 lunar flyby mission that Jerry brought to my attention and I subsequently approved and funded and of course it had a successful outcome. Jerry had a long and successful career at Hughes, before retiring as a Chief Technologist, the highest level for engineering specialists.

Mark Skidmore was a vice president at Hughes Global Services. At the time of the HGS-1 mission he was director of HGS’ nascent fleet of “challenged” satellites. He served as the HGS program manager for the recovery mission.

Rex Ridenoure worked briefly at Hughes Communications and at a much less significant level before he left.

It is well known that “success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan”. In the case of HGS 1, truly a team effort, the intellectual “father” figure was most definitely Jerry Salvatore I have no doubt that the version of the HGS lunar flyby mission expressed by Jerry and Mark Skidmore is correct. I might add that the Asiasat 3 rescue is one example of the type of innovation and technical excellence that made Hughes Space and Communication such a great place to work in the later part of the 20th century.

The Program Manager’s View–Mark Skidmore

Rex Ridenoure’s recent article, “Beyond GEO,” well summarizes the historical significance of the first-of-its-kind mission that Hughes conducted in 1998 to salvage the AsiaSat 3 satellite. Ridenoure’s claims that he and a small company, Innovative Orbital Designs (“IOD”), were the inspiration for Hughes’ novel approach and that Hughes subsequently attempted to “squelch” their roles are entirely false, however.

AsiaSat 3, a Hughes HS 601 HP satellite, was launched on Christmas day 1997. The fourth stage of the Russian Proton booster malfunctioned, operating for only two seconds out of a planned 110 second burn. This left AsiaSat 3 stranded in a useless, highly inclined orbit. Upon returning from the holiday shutdown in January 1998, I was assigned the task of examining options to salvage AsiaSat 3. At that time I was a director at Hughes Global Services (“HGS”.) I would later become HGS’ program manager for the recovery mission.

Throughout January and into early February I met regularly with Jerry Salvatore, Hughes Space and Communications Chief Technologist, who was exploring ways to maneuver the AsiaSat 3 satellite into an economically viable orbit, including inclined synchronous and non-synchronous orbits. At no time during any of our many meetings did Salvatore ever mention Ridenoure or IOD, or indicate that they or anyone else had suggested to him to use the moon’s gravity to reposition AsiaSat 3.

The latter did not come up until a chance meeting between Salvatore and Ronald Swanson, president of HGS, in a Hughes parking lot. Swanson mentioned the moon, and in a stroke of genius, Salvatore realized that a lunar flyby could be used to reposition the satellite, known as HGS-1 after HGS acquired it from the insurance underwriters, into a commercially attractive orbit. Salvatore’s concept was like the “free return” trajectory employed by Apollo 13. Salvatore was subsequently awarded two U.S. patents for his innovation. Those patents have never been challenged.

Hughes engineer Cesar Ocampo is mentioned frequently in Ridenoure’s paper and has published his own personal views on the mission. The insinuation that Hughes conspired to suppress Ridenoure and IOD’s self-proclaimed contributions by prohibiting Ocampo (and others) from communicating with the media is simply not true. Hughes’ policy was that only designated employees were authorized to represent the company to the media. This policy existed long before the HGS-1 mission. As the program manager, I was designated as a media contact. Mark Schwene, vice president of business development at HGS, and Hughes’ senior executives were also authorized to speak with the media. It was a very small cadre. Not even Salvatore, the veteran mission manager, was authorized to engage the media during the course of the mission. As a lower level engineer focusing on a narrowly defined, highly technical aspect of the mission, Ocampo was simply not in a position to represent Hughes to the media. Ocampo disagreed and made his views known on many occasions.

Ridenoure freely admits that it was not possible for Hughes to either command or receive telemetry from HGS-1 at the ranges (distances from Earth) necessitated by IOD’s approach. When Ridenoure and IOD learned of this fatal flaw in their concept, their tactics changed from attempting to convince Hughes to employ their intricate orbital techniques to claiming that they had inspired Salvatore to use the moon’s gravity for a rescue mission. Nothing could be further from the truth. Salvatore had already conceived his elegantly simple approach by the time he, or I, were made aware of IOD’s concepts.

Ridenoure and IOD mounted a remarkably effective campaign to convince the media that they were the genesis of Salvatore’s mission design. Their “little company gets squashed by big company” story angle played well. They pursued their campaign across multiple fronts, sometimes enlisting others to covertly press their case. In what can be only described as an ambush, the wife of an IOD associate peppered Salvatore and me with questions regarding the inspiration for the mission at a technical lecture we were giving at JPL. At no time did she disclose her relationship with the IOD group; we learned of this later. Hughes’ proper refusal to engage in a public tit-for-tat exchange with Ridenoure and IOD likely aided them in their public relations crusade.

Ridenoure and IOD’s continued insistence that they were the catalyst for Hughes’ recovery mission was viewed by many within Hughes as a precursor to litigation. This proved to be true. IOD filed suit against Hughes. Although an extremely significant point, Ridenoure relegates the litigation to a frivolous footnote in his paper. The court found that IOD’s claims were without merit and dismissed the suit by summary judgment. The court did not allow the case to proceed to trail. Furthermore, the court ordered that IOD pay Hughes for certain of Hughes’ costs of defense.

From Salvatore and Swanson’s “ah-ha” moment in the parking lot through to the final retro burn positioning HGS-1 in geosynchronous orbit, the HGS-1 recovery mission was an amazing team effort. For many of us it was a once-in-a-career opportunity. Hughes, PanAmSat, various specialist consultants, P.T. Satelindo, the U.S. Space Command (now U.S. Strategic Command), the U.S. Air Force Space Command, MIT Lincoln Laboratories, Analytical Graphics, and others contributed to the success of the mission. Their efforts were publicly recognized by Hughes. Hughes willingly gave credit when credit was due. IOD and its affiliates did nothing but complain, badger, and unsuccessfully litigate. No amount of creative writing on their part will change the fact that they in no way influenced the HGS-1 recovery mission design or were involved in any way with its execution. The Hughes team, on the other hand, conceived, planned and flawlessly executed this first commercial lunar mission. Such was the hallmark of Hughes.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Skidmore. All rights reserved.


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About Jack Fisher

Jack was a systems engineer at Hughes from 1961 to 1992. He contributed to various programs including Surveyor, Pioneer Venus, Galileo, Intelsat VI and innumerable proposals. He was the manager of of the Spacecraft Systems Engineering Lab until his retirement. Upon retirement Jack taught systems engineering at a number of national and international venues.