On August 15, 2010, the U.S. Air Force almost lost a $2-billion communications satellite. A team of military and contract space operators eventually saved the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite, built by Lockheed Martin. But the rescue, admittedly an impressive technological feat, is also a window into the greatest weaknesses of the world’s leading space power, according to one space insider.
The seven-ton “AEHF-1,” part of a planned six-satellite constellation meant to support radio communication between far-flung U.S. military units, had been in orbit just one day when the problems began. The satellite started out in a highly-elliptical, temporary orbit. The plan was to use the spacecraft’s on-board engine to boost it to a permanent, geo-stationary orbit. But when the Air Force space operators at Los Angeles Air Force Base activated the engine, nothing happened. The Government Accountability Office would later blame the failure on a rag left inside a fuel line by a Lockheed worker.