Beyond GEO–Rex Ridenoure

Note:  This article by Rex Ridenoure originally appeared in Jeff Foust’s blog Space Review on 5/13/13 and is used here with his permission.

Fifteen years ago today the AsiaSat-3 spacecraft became the first spacecraft in the history of space travel to conduct commercial operations in the vicinity of the Moon, executing the first of two successful lunar flybys designed to take it from an initial useless orbit to a final usable one.

Artist's Rendering of AsiaSat-3/HGS-1 During a Lunar Flyby

Artist’s Rendering of AsiaSat-3/HGS-1 During a Lunar Flyby

By mid-1998, nearly five months after being stranded in an odd orbit around the Earth and five weeks after its first lunar swingby, the spacecraft was finally parked in a slightly inclined geosynchronous Earth orbit, where it soon completed initial checkout for providing telecommunications services.

Before this mission, only government space agencies of the US, USSR and Japan had attempted robotic lunar missions.  Approximately 100 were launched and over half were total failures.1

The AsiaSat-3 salvage mission happened nearly thirty years after the first serious proposal had been floated to conduct a commercial mission at the Moon (Project Harvest Moon), and its success capped the 20th century with a milestone of particular importance to commercial space advocates expecting significant expansion of commercial “deep-space” mission activity in the early 21st century.

Sadly, fifteen years later, this mission still stands as the only commercial mission ever conducted well beyond that special place where the bulk of all current commercial mission activity happens—and ends:  the Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) arc.  This ring around the Earth high above the equator is a virtual parking lot for hundreds of commercial telecommunications satellites and wellspring of approximately two-thirds of the nearly $300-billion global space economy.

As far as commercial space goes, however, the GEO arc has served as a metaphor for the edge of the known world, with the Moon, near-Earth asteroids and Mars beckoning far across the abyss, untouched by commercial interests.

This brief recap of the first commercial venture beyond the GEO arc highlights how such achievements can result not just from methodical advanced planning, detailed engineering and preparation as one might expect and hope for, but also from a wild, unpredictable mix of failure, serendipity, personal motivation, passion, calculated risk-taking, scrappiness, compromise, connections, insider knowledge, ignorance, egos and corporate politics—and old-fashioned good luck.

Note:  The conversations recollected below are accurate summaries of what was said, and not necessarily word-for-word transcripts.

To the Rescue

The AsiaSat-3 mission started as a failure.   In late December 1997, the final stage of its Russian Proton launcher glitched early into the second of two planned burns at apogee, leaving the spacecraft in a highly inclined, highly elliptical Earth orbit—a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) in mission-design parlance.   Mission controllers from the spacecraft’s manufacturer, Hughes Space and Communications in El Segundo, California, readily took control of the errant satellite.  Obscure headlines and brief, matter-of-fact press releases reported the failure, but it generally escaped much notice, even from me, due to the busy holiday season.

About six months into a new job at Microcosm, Inc. (Torrance, California), I was managing its division focused on space-mission engineering and analysis.   I had left JPL after an exciting 11-year stint to pursue a passion for pushing commercial space activity beyond Earth orbit and into the solar system.

For about four months leading up to the 1997 holiday season, I was actively working with Microcosm founder and CEO Jim Wertz to get a potential technical and business collaboration in place between Microcosm and another small space-mission engineering firm, Innovative Orbit Design (Boston).   IOD was founded and led by Ed Belbruno, a creative mathematician and trajectory theorist with whom I had collaborated in the early 1990s on low-cost lunar mission concepts when we were both working at JPL.

In 1986, Belbruno conceived of a novel and propellant-efficient orbit-transfer technique for getting spacecraft from the vicinity of the Earth to the Moon.  His “Fuzzy Boundary” or “Weak Stability Boundary” technique2 was attempted some five years later in 1991 by the Japanese Hiten spacecraft, which had dropped off a small lunar orbiter (Hagoromo) during a lunar swingby in 1990, but the small subsatellite’s transmitter had failed.   Hiten, Japan’s first lunar probe, carried on with its mission—multiple lunar flybys and the first-ever aerobraking maneuver, at Earth—and then slid into lunar orbit after successful application of the WSB transfer approach.  This fortuitous opportunity salvaged the lunar orbiting phase of the Hiten-Hagoromo mission and validated Belbruno’s theoretical work.3   Subsequent to this dramatic demonstration, Belbruno sought and was granted several patents relating to these novel orbit-transfer techniques.

Belbruno had visited Microcosm in late October that year and discussions about the proposed collaboration were progressing well.  Wertz’ stated focus for Microcosm was “finding alternative technologies to reduce space-mission cost,” so a Microcosm-IOD partnership made sense.

During the first two weeks in January after the holidays, letters and conference calls addressing the details of the proposed collaboration were exchanged between Wertz and Belbruno’s representatives on the east coast (two attorneys), while I was preparing detailed task plans for the staff at Microcosm.

Sometime after the New Year one of Belbruno’s attorneys had been tipped off about the AsiaSat-3 failure, and soon Belbruno was aware of these events and pondering the situation.

Belbruno called me on January 12th, wondering if I had heard about the failure.  He noted that if the spacecraft were still healthy, his WSB technique might be able to save this mission as well—by sending AsiaSat 3 to the Moon first.   I replied that I had seen the headlines but paid little attention, and knew next to nothing else about the spacecraft or its condition—but also knew how to find out.

My space career started at Hughes in the late 1970s, and during my five years there supporting five space missions I had worked with some of the best spacecraft system and mission engineers on staff, and had kept in touch with a few over the years.

First on my call list was Loren Slafer, who always seemed to know what was going on across the company.   By 1998 he was Hughes’ Chief Technologist for spacecraft attitude determination and control systems, well aware and connected, but I hadn’t talked with him for about four years.   I reached him on January 16th and, after a few pleasantries, asked if he could tell me anything about the state of AsiaSat 3.

“Nothing in detail, but the mission team is working on various scenarios for what might be done,” Slafer said.   “Most of the detailed information is embargoed due to an ongoing insurance investigation.”

He gave me the number of Hughes mission engineer Chris Cutroneo, with whom I had worked on all five missions back in the mid-1980s but hadn’t talked with for over a dozen years.  After catching up on news a bit, we got down to business.

“Chris, Loren tells me you’re working on mission options for AsiaSat 3.   What can you tell me about the state of the spacecraft?   I may have a suggestion for you.”

“What kind of suggestion,” Chris asked.

“Well…it involves applying an unconventional orbit-transfer technique to move the satellite to a better place,“ I answered, avoiding mention of the Moon altogether.

“Sorry Rex, I can’t tell you anything specific,” he said.   “The insurers are all over this—and us—trying to figure out what went wrong, and the Hughes lawyers are advising us not to say anything to anyone.”

“Anything?   You can’t say anything?” I asked.   “All I need to know are basic numbers like masses, propellant loads, its current orbit, and whether the spacecraft is healthy and under control.”

“Well,” Chris said, “if you happen to go online and happen to come across a certain summary of AsiaSat 3, especially what’s on the Hughes website for the HS-601HP spacecraft model and in the recent AsiaSat press releases, all of that is probably pretty accurate info.”  (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)  “And I can say that we’re controlling the spacecraft, it’s healthy, and all we have done so far is raise its perigee by about 150 km.  Beyond this, I can’t say what were up to, but we’re actively assessing our options.”

“Thanks Chris.   I think this is all I need,” I said.

Three weeks had passed since AsiaSat 3 was left stranded in Earth orbit.  The insurers had already written it off as a total loss and had committed to make good on the $200-million policy.  They were also paying the Hughes mission analysts to figure out what could be done with the vehicle that might recoup some of this sizable loss—someday.

Crunching Numbers

Using some basic rule-of-thumb WSB maneuver numbers from Belbruno, spacecraft specs found online for AsiaSat 3 and current orbit as reported in the press (plus factoring in the 150-km perigee tweak), I ran some back-of-the-envelope calculations assessing whether there was enough propellant onboard to follow  Belbruno’s guidance, send the vehicle to the Moon, crank the craft’s orbit using one or more lunar flybys, fling it back to GEO and salvage the mission.  To cover my bases, I was able to independently confirm some of the AsiaSat-3 specs by e-mailing some questions directly to AsiaSat in Hong Kong, and Cutroneo allowed me to query a member of his Hughes team who was familiar with odd trajectories, Cesar Ocampo.

Ocampo had completed some graduate-level intern work at JPL a few years earlier and was familiar with Belbruno and his novel trajectories, so I threw out a hint to Ocampo that the WSB approach might prove useful if applied to AsiaSat-3’s predicament.  Ocampo was intrigued—but I still didn’t mention the Moon.

Convinced from my simple analysis that things looked promising, I asked another Microcosm mission analyst who reported to me, Curtis Potterveld, to take a crack at the same calculations and double-check my results.

Curtis came to the same conclusions I did, which were so amazing that we asked another Microcosm analyst, John Collins, to check both of us.   John made his own refinements to the calculations, modifying our numbers a bit and leading to slightly better results.

On January 19th, a week after Belbruno’s call, I summarized our findings in an internal memo to Wertz:

“It appears that given the current conditions of the HS-601HP spacecraft (esp. the huge biprop propellant load) and its current ‘useless’ orbit (GTO), it could easily be inserted into lunar orbit!”

Our numbers also confirmed Belbruno’s intuition about using the Moon to get AsiaSat-3 back to its intended parking spot: we estimated that after a 3-month trip it could be stopped at GEO with enough onboard propellant remaining to support at least several years of orbit-slot stationkeeping operations.

I called Cutroneo mid-morning to convey our findings.

“Chris, we’ve completed our initial assessment of AsiaSat-3’s situation,” I said.   “Are you sitting down?”

I summarized the WSB approach and our numbers—and mentioned going to the Moon.

“Wow, Rex.   You need to call Cesar, right now!”

I replayed our findings to Ocampo, and he immediately comprehended our suggestion.

“I’ve been running all of the proposed orbits here since the failure, and nobody has uttered the word ‘Moon’.”

Cesar and Belbruno started talking shop.

Reality Sets In

During the next six weeks, a flurry of activity on all fronts dramatically transformed the notional mission concept conceived by Belbruno, validated by the team at Microcosm and lobbed by me into the option studies at Hughes into an executable salvage mission plan.4

Also during this period, most of the collegial relationships that had been formed to work the opportunity gradually unraveled and degraded, leaving most of the involved parties unaware—or at best party aware—of what the others were doing.  Attitudes soured and frustrations grew.

Ocampo’s enthusiasm for Belbruno’s WSB suggestion quickly transferred to Cutroneo, who then informed his AsiaSat contacts of this compelling development while seeking internal approval at Hughes to work the idea into their ongoing mission studies.   Pending this approval, Cutroneo signaled on January 20th that he wanted to start having face-to-face mission-design meetings ASAP.

Wertz continued to work with Belbruno’s attorneys to put finishing touches on the proposed Microcosm-IOD collaboration, while I and Slafer tried to stay on top of daily developments.

Slafer called me on January 22nd and reported that a quick-look assessment by the Hughes team of sending AsiaSat 3 to the Moon resulted in no show-stoppers and that the mission team was “very excited” about the opportunity and wants to do it, adding that “I think the insurers would want to try it anyway, regardless of what Hughes thinks.”

Slafer estimated that the effort was going to cost about $1 million to implement (mostly to cover special engineering and analysis tasks), and suggested avenues the Microcosm-IOD team might consider for approaching Hughes with a proposal to lend technical support to the salvage effort.

Late in January, Belbruno’s team contacted the AsiaSat insurers directly, informing them of the salvage opportunity and seeking their support for the idea.  (We learned about five weeks later that Hughes management was quite irate about this at the time, but they eventually calmed down.)

Slafer called me on January 28th with an update—and the first big reality check.   He reported that following additional technical assessment, the Hughes engineers had determined that there actually was one show-stopper to applying Belbruno’s WSB salvage approach, but only one:  due to radio link performance margins, mission controllers would not be able to communicate with AsiaSat 3 much farther out than the Moon’s distance (~400 thousand km), while Belbruno’s trajectory required the craft to use a lunar swingby to slingshot out as far as nearly four times the Earth-Moon distance (~1.5 million km), where subtle gravitational influences from the Sun would alter the parameters of the craft’s orbit in desirable ways.

Whereas during January most developments on the salvage effort were relatively open and trackable, events during February and March played out more like a blur of multiple, uncoordinated communications channels, mixed signals and stealthy developments.    All of us involved had our own view of the Big Picture, much like the various blind men feeling the elephant.   None of us had a clear view of what was actually going on.

I was having occasional conversations and phone calls with Wertz and Belbruno’s team about the Microcosm-IOD partnership, while Wertz separately was having more frequent detailed follow-up calls with Belbruno’s attorneys and even the AsiaSat 3 insurers—but terms of the deal were not converging very well.   In fact, Wertz asked me to stand down with my efforts until these deal points were sorted out, but since events were moving along at such a rapid pace I (regretfully) didn’t follow his suggestion.  I was relying on phone tag-ups with Slafer to stay informed about developments at Hughes, which we had during work hours as well as after hours.   Belbruno was engaged in a series of technical calls with Ocampo, and Ocampo was also briefing colleagues internally at Hughes about how IOD’s WSB technique might be applicable to many future Hughes comsat missions.  Belbruno’s attorneys were separately trying to convince Hughes management to strike some sort of strategic partnership and collaborative R&D effort with IOD.   His attorneys were even calling me after hours to discuss strategy and sort out plans.  The insurers were calling IOD with encouraging updates, claiming in mid-March that “Hughes is going to get this salvage opportunity.”  And the Hughes lawyers continued to remind those involved with the salvage to keep their lips zipped.

By late March, Slafer had concluded that based on what he knew that not only was a Hughes-IOD collaboration off the table, but so was using any sort of WSB-based technique for the salvage.  Belbruno confirmed this on March 27th, reporting to me that Ocampo had just debriefed him on an internal Hughes mission team status meeting held the week before.

“They’re going to use a free-return trajectory,” he said, sighing.

In the Dark

Unknown to any of us outside of Hughes at the time and not discovered until late April, since early February (at the latest) Hughes’ Chief Technologist for Orbital Mechanics, Jerry Salvatore, was working an alternative salvage plan involving the Moon.  (Nearly two years later at a talk given at JPL5, Salvatore said that the first suggestion to consider using the Moon in salvage scenarios was passed to him by another Hughes colleague in one of the company parking lots.)

Salvatore played a major role is all four prior Hughes salvage missions—Anik C, SBS, Leasat 3 and Intelsat VI, all missions salvaged using the Space Shuttle—and was one of the best at his craft and very clever.

Salvatore had concluded that the WSB approach was untenable for the AsiaSat-3 situation, and was instead working out the details for trying an Apollo-style “free-return” trajectory, which still involved sending the craft to the Moon for a flyby, but cranked the orbit there using the gravity-assist effect rather than flinging the spacecraft into deep space so the Sun could work on it.

Reference 4 below by Ocampo provides an excellent technical summary of the salvage mission trajectory design and other technical details.   Suffice it to say that given the time and constraints within which the Hughes team had to devise their salvage plan, the final trajectory chosen and key events required to pull it off, while not optimum, were “good enough.”

In retrospect, through most of April those of us outside Hughes had little idea what was really going on inside Hughes.  It was even worse than February and March.

Nearly everything relating to the salvage effort that I, Wertz, and Belbruno were working on at that time seemed in limbo.   The Microcosm-IOD partnership process was stalling out, as were the ongoing Hughes-IOD collaboration discussions.  Ocampo was still in a dialog with Belbruno, and on April 23rd  reported that things at Hughes with regard to the salvage were “still looking fairly good” and that a decision on what to do with AsiaSat 3 was coming down the pike.  “There is nothing negative at all,” he told Belbruno.

Then things got ugly.


On April 27th, Belbruno called me, extremely agitated (with a few choice words omitted here).

“Rex!  Hughes is going to the Moon with AsiaSat 3!”

He had contacts in Europe, some tied to the amateur astronomer community, who during the previous few days were hearing rumors from Paris indicating outward movement of AsiaSat 3, toward the Moon.

Via the Internet and e-mail, these rumors were rapidly confirmed and spread, reportedly forcing Hughes to hold a press conference to announce their plans earlier than they had intended.   This was held on April 29th, accompanied by press releases from Hughes as well as Analytical Graphics, Inc., whose orbital mechanics software was used in part to help devise the salvage trajectory.

At the press conference, another Hughes subsidiary, Hughes Global Services, announced that they had assumed title of the errant spacecraft and that it had been renamed HGS-1.

The first maneuver committing HGS-1 to the salvage plan had actually occurred on April 10th, and the Hughes team was gradually raising the craft’s apogee higher and higher, with a plan to commit to the first of two planned lunar flybys with a trans-lunar injection burn scheduled for May 7th, followed by a lunar swingby on May 13th.

Side View of Key Trajectory Events For Salvaging AsiaSat3/HGS-1

Side View of Key Trajectory Events For Salvaging AsiaSat3/HGS-1

No mention was made whatsoever at the press conference or in the press releases about Belbruno’s role in all of this, IOD, my role or Microcosm, nor were any of us notified in advance about the event.  This made Belbruno apoplectic and was personally dismaying to me.  Nonetheless, I was delighted that there was finally a commercial spacecraft heading to the Moon.

Most media channels picked up the story, and it was front-page news the next day, April 30th.   Coincidentally, this was the same day that I was on the program at the biennial Low-Cost Planetary Missions Conference (held at Caltech in Pasadena) to present a paper6 co-authored with a Microcosm colleague specifically addressing the history of and prospects for commercial deep-space missions.  The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, and I milked it for all it was worth.


During the next ten days or so, Belbruno and I tried our best to learn more about what was happening by contacting Slafer and Ocampo.  We also initiated our own PR campaign by compiling our version of how this saga started and e-mailing it to our own media contacts, space colleagues and chat rooms.   (Remember chat rooms?)  On May 5th Wertz submitted a letter setting the facts straight to the Editor of the local South Bay paper, the Daily Breeze, and I faxed a copy to Slafer for good measure.  (It was published verbatim in the Breeze on May 13th, the day of HGS-1’s first lunar flyby.)

I finally got hold of Slafer on May 8th, and he was upbeat.   To his credit, he and Cutroneo had marched over to senior management in Hughes’ PR department the day before to summarize the facts as they viewed them, and Slafer waved his copy of Wertz’ letter to the Breeze and confirmed that everything in this letter was accurate.   He also enthusiastically offered to get approval for a suggestion I made during the call:  to allow Belbruno and me access to the Hughes Mission Control Center in El Segundo during the upcoming historic lunar flyby.

On the same day I called the MCC contact Slafer suggested, and she saw no reason why the request wouldn’t be approved.   But on May 11th she called me back and reported that the MCC would be closed to “all but Hughes employees” during the encounter.   (I confirmed months later that several non-Hughes people were in the MCC during the encounter, which by this time didn’t surprise me.)

Ocampo got back to me on May 12th, lamenting that his management didn’t want him talking with anyone on the outside about how the salvage is going “until it’s all over.”    Fair enough.   But then he added, “I have my own opinions about who did what when, but my management doesn’t want me to talk about those.”7

The May 13th lunar flyby went off without a hitch, as did the second flyby on June 6th.  Ten days later HGS-1 was parked in the desired slightly inclined (8 degrees) geosynchronous orbit.  Normal orbital perturbations would gradually decrease the inclination toward zero.

Top View of Key Events for Salvaging AsiaSat3/HGS-1

Top View of Key Events for Salvaging AsiaSat3/HGS-1

Planned and executed in a record four months, the first commercial mission beyond GEO was a complete success.

Commands were sent by ground controllers to deploy the twin solar arrays (one didn’t) and large telecom antennas (all did), and HGS-1 was ready for service.

After a brief marketing effort, HGS sold the satellite to PanAmSat the next year.  It was then moved to a different orbital slot in GEO and successfully operated for three more years.   Nearly out of propellant, it was deactivated in July 2000 and moved to a graveyard orbit.8

Thanks to the efforts of our front-line champions inside Hughes, our many supporters in the space community and the connectivity of the Internet, the story about how the core, enabling idea of using the Moon to salvage AsiaSat 3 entered into the option trade space at Hughes was not buried by the personal or corporate motivations that apparently wanted to squelch the facts.  The story got out and stuck.

For the annual Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine Laureate Awards, arguably the closest thing aerospace has to the film industry’s Academy Awards, Salvatore, Ocampo, Belbruno and Ridenoure were nominated for the 1998 Best Achievement in Space award.    Though from a handful of nominations the ultimate Laureate award went to NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, just being nominated speaks for itself.

What Next?

With the success of the AsiaSat-3 salvage on the books, similar salvage opportunities have been taken seriously since.   Using the Moon to help salvage a stranded spacecraft—all GEO comsats—was discussed and worked to some level of technical detail for Orion 3 in 2000, and again in 2006 for ArabSat 4A and 2008 for AMC-14.   But for various reasons salvages were not attempted.

There are currently at least a dozen active commercial or private efforts intending—on a planned, not contingency basis—to develop and launch a spacecraft or space system beyond GEO to destinations afar.   Some target the Moon, some near-Earth asteroids, others Mars and others heliocentric orbits between Venus and the Earth or various libration points in cislunar space.  Many are frequently making headlines and creating buzz.

Unless there is a very mature program operating in stealth mode right now, the earliest launch date for any of these systems seems to be 2014 or 2015.   Until then, the tally for commercial space activity beyond GEO stands at one—15 years ago and counting.


1      For a complete robotic lunar mission list, see

2      For an introduction to low-energy orbit transfers such as the WSB approach, see, which also includes links to several additional useful references.

3      For more background on the Hiten / Hagoromo mission, see

4      2005 December, C. Ocampo:  Trajectory Analysis of the Lunar Flyby Rescue ofAsiaSat-3/HGS-1; Published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 1065 New Trends in Astrodynamics and Applications, Pages ix–x, 1–470. See We are all indebted to Cesar Ocampo for thoroughly documenting much of what happened technically and programmatically inside Hughes during the period covered by this article.  I referred to this reference and my own voluminous notes extensively when compiling this chronicle.

5      1999 November 30, J. Salvatore and M. Skidmore:  The HGS-1 Salvage Mission; Caltech Management Association lecture, held at JPL.

6      1998 April 30, R. Ridenoure and K. Polk:  Private, Commercial and Student-Oriented Low-cost Deep-Space Missions:  A Global Survey of Activity; Paper for 3rd IAA International Conference on Low-Cost Planetary Missions held at Caltech from April 27-May 1.

7      See p. 234 in Reference 4 for Ocampo’s frank summary of what was going on behind the scenes.  There is much more that could be said and written about the backroom shenanigans relating to this saga, including litigation, but that would be like wanting to see how sausage is made, wouldn’t it?

8      For the PAS-22 summary, see



The Williams Patent Litigation–Los Angeles Times

Hughes Aircraft Asks $1 Billion From U.S. Over Satellite Patent                          Ralph Vartabedian from the Los Angeles Times February 3, 1988                Reprinted With Permission

In the first day of what was described as the largest patent infringement trial ever, Hughes Aircraft claimed Tuesday that the federal government stole a key satellite design that eventually became the basis for a world revolution in communications technology.

The Los Angeles-based aerospace company is seeking damages of $1.2 billion from the federal government in U.S. Claims Court. The trial, the final phase of a 17-year legal dispute, opened in a courtroom at the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena.

Hughes has already won two previous trials, in which federal courts upheld Hughes’ claim to a valid patent on the satellite device and then ruled that the government had infringed on it.

The current trial, which involves the penalty portion of the complex legal case, is expected to go on for six to nine months. Hughes attorney Sheldon Karon of Chicago said the amount of damages sought is a record.

“This dwarfs anything before it,” Karon said. “There has been nothing that even approaches it.” If Hughes wins the $1.2 billion it seeks, it would be the largest award for patent infringement ever made. But a current case that Polaroid has brought against Kodak could also reach the billion-dollar level and might be trebled under certain circumstances. Under patent law, damages awarded against the government cannot be trebled.

Justice Department attorneys Tuesday sharply disputed Hughes’ claims.

“It is overstated by many, many, many millions of dollars,” Thomas J. Byrnes, the Justice Department attorney representing the government, said in an interview. He added that the Justice Department recently filed a motion for a new trial on the portions of the case that upheld the patent and that found the government infringed on the patent.

At issue is a patent granted to Hughes for a simple way of controlling satellites in orbit. The device was the invention of Donald D. Williams, a young, Harvard-educated physicist on Hughes’ staff in the 1960s.

“The guy was a genius,” A. W. (Tony) Karambelas, Hughes’ staff vice president for patents and licensing, said during a recess at the trial. “We will introduce evidence that over 100 satellites have used this Williams’ patent.”

The crux of the case is the allegation that the Air Force appropriated the Williams’ patent for use on military satellites produced by other contractors, such as Ford Aerospace, TRW and Rockwell International, Karambelas said. Those companies are protected by the government against patent-infringement actions, but Hughes alleges that it was never compensated by the government for its invention.

At Tuesday’s court session, Albert Hibbs, a former scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, testified about the critical importance of the Williams’ invention in allowing satellites to be controlled in orbit.

The Williams’ device involved use of a single rocket thruster, the firing of which could be precisely timed to stabilize and control the position of a spinning satellite. By firing the thruster in timed pulses, it could accomplish what otherwise would require a heavier system.

To explain the concept to Claims Court Judge James T. Turner, a videotape was used showing a computer simulation of a satellite in orbit. Justice Department attorneys objected to the demonstration, saying that a computer simulation does not amount to “substantive evidence.” Turner took the objection under advisement and said he would rule later.

Williams died in January, 1966, nearly a decade after his invention had revolutionized communications technology, without gaining wide recognition for his accomplishments. But an account of his work in the Hughes Aircraft employee newspaper noted that he once volunteered his life savings to the company when funding for his satellite work was jeopardized.

“When he put that check down on my desk, I became convinced that this type of dedication just has to be supported,” Hughes Aircraft General Manager Pat Hyland was quoted as saying.

On Friday, the court will convene at Hughes Aircraft’s Space & Communications Group’s satellite facility in El Segundo, where Hughes Aircraft Chairman Albert Wheelon will testify.

Judge in $1.2-Billion Case Sees How Satellites Are Built
Hughes Aircraft Patent Suit Shifts to Plant                                                                       Ralph Vartabedian from the Los Angeles Times February 6, 1988                Reprinted With Permission

U.S. Claims Court Judge James T. Turner traded his black judicial robe for a white one Friday as he convened an extraordinary court session inside the El Segundo satellite production facilities of Hughes Aircraft, which is suing the government for patent infringement.

Donned in a technician’s white smock, Turner was given a nearly three-hour show-and-tell session by Hughes Aircraft Chairman Albert Wheelon, who explained in detail how communications satellites are built.

Hughes is suing the federal government for $1.2 billion for infringing on a key patent that Hughes believes enabled the creation in 1963 of practical communications satellites and their growth into a multibillion-dollar industry.

The trial, which began earlier this week, is the final phase of a 17-year legal battle that Hughes has pressed to obtain recognition and compensation for what is known in the company as the “Williams patent.” It is named for Donald Williams, a Harvard-educated scientist who invented it in the early 1960s.

Hughes has already won in two trials in which federal courts upheld that the Los Angeles-based aerospace company holds a validpatent and that the government had infringed on it. The current trial is the penalty portion of the case.

Wheelon testified Friday that Williams’ patented invention is used in virtually all of the 82 Hughes commercial satellites produced since 1963, worth $5.8 billion.

“I believe it (the patent) has been the essential ingredient in our business,” Wheelon told the judge, as he pointed to a table containing scale models of more than a dozen Hughes satellites.

An entourage of court clerks, attorneys and reporters followed Wheelon around the facility, known in the industry as a “high bay,” as he explained each of the steps of producing a satellite and how the complex machines work in the cold vacuum of space.

Justice Department attorneys have sharply disputed Hughes’ claims in the case and said they are exaggerated many times over. But at Friday’s session, Wheelon clearly enjoyed a home court advantage inside the spacecraft production facility.

At one point, Justice Department attorney Thomas J. Byrnes demanded to know whether a screw used on one satellite was of the common household variety.

“It isn’t as simple as that,” Wheelon explained patiently with a smile, launching into a technical discussion of the thermal loads that are generated by solar rays as a satellite circles the Earth.

A few unusual interruptions marked the court session, such as when a fork-lift truck intervened as Wheelon was describing the operation of the huge Intelsat VI satellite, a 5,000-pound behemoth that Hughes is building for international telephone communications.

A young woman, loaded onto something called a “diving board,” was hoisted high above the Intelsat satellite to make some adjustments to the craft’s antennae as the court session continued below.

“This is the largest insured value in the world,” Wheelon said about his spacecraft plant. “It is higher than Tiffany’s.”

Hughes officials said they wanted Judge Turner to see exactly how complex are the production and testing requirements in the communications satellite industry.

If Turner was impressed, he did not show it. He listened quietly to Wheelon’s long discourse on satellites, occasionally asking a question. He pointed to a rocket nozzle and asked Wheelon if Hughes still uses only a 5-pound thruster to control the several-ton satellites.

Much like the system used in 1963 for Hughes’ Syncom, the first practical communications satellite, only one small thruster is used to control Hughes satellites in space, Wheelon said.

A. W. (Tony) Karambelas, Hughes’ patent attorney, said more than 100 satellites have been built by the government using the Williams patent.

“When Williams first conceived of the idea, the government said it would never work,” Karambelas recalled in an interview Friday. “After Williams proved that it could work, the government said, ‘Thank you very much, we own it.’ After we fought them on it and won our patent, they said, ‘What? Pay for that? It’s worthless.’ We have had little choice but to fight them all these years.”

The size of patent infringement awards has grown dramatically in recent years as courts increasingly are willing to recognize the claims of major corporations.

Legal Blunder May Be Costly to Hughes Aircraft
Could Lose $270-Million Claim; Judge in Patent Case Cites Error by Lawyers Ralph Vartabedian from the Los Angeles Times February 6, 1988              Reprinted With Permission

A legal blunder in a patent infringement case brought by Hughes Aircraft against the federal government, the largest patent case in history, may end up costing the company $270 million, The Times has learned.

The blunder came to light in a ruling handed down last September by U.S. Claims Court Judge William T. Turner, who said Hughes’ lawyers had made a “unilateral mistake.” The ruling was only recently published in a patent law journal.

In addition, five knowledgeable sources–including lawyers, government officials and individuals close to Hughes–said it is widely accepted that a legal oversight caused the potential financial setback.

Hughes officials and attorneys declined to comment. John F. Walker, managing partner at Latham & Watkins, the law firm representing Hughes in the case, said his firm had not made any error.

Hughes Aircraft, a General Motors subsidiary, has been suing the federal government during the last 18 years for patent infringement on a complex device used to control orbiting satellites. Hughes is claiming $3.16 billion in damages, according to court documents.

Says U.S. Stole Design

Turner’s ruling found that Hughes had inadvertently released the government from some of its liability when the company signed a separate legal settlement with Ford Motor, which it was suing for infringement of the same patent.

The patented machine was invented in the early 1960s by Donald Williams, a young genius at Hughes who later commited suicide.Hughes claims that the government stole the design and used it on 108 satellites without any royalties being paid to Hughes.

The device allows a single small rocket motor to control the orbit of a spinning satellite by employing gyroscopic principles.Hughes has asserted that the invention enabled the creation of practical communications satellites, today a multibillion-dollar industry.

But government attorneys say that Hughes has overblown its claims “many times over” and that it does not possess a validpatent.

Nonetheless, the Los Angeles-based aerospace firm has already won two previous trials against the government, in which federal courts have found that Hughes has a valid claim to a patent on the device and that the government infringed on that patent.

Until Turner’s decision in September, which was reprinted in the U.S. Patent Quarterly, it appeared that the company was on the home stretch toward winning a giant award. The current phase of the case involves setting the penalty against the government.

Hughes is seeking a royalty of 15% of the cost of the government satellites, in addition to “delay compensation” to make up for the years that it was denied the royalties.

But Hughes’ legal position was rocked Sept. 29, when Turner threw out Hughes’ infringement claims on 13 government satellites, which were built by Ford Aerospace, a unit of Ford Motor. At least two requests for a rehearing on the ruling have been denied, but an appeal is expected.

The royalties and delay compensation on those 13 satellites represented $270 million worth of claims against the government, according to a secret court filing that Hughes made Oct. 7. Under the Justice Department’s method of valuing the satellites, however, the 13 spacecraft might be worth only $50 million.

Reported in Results

The ruling that threw out claims on the 13 satellites was based on wording contained in an out-of-court settlement with Ford. That settlement was never disclosed by either Hughes or Ford, but knowledgeable sources said Ford agreed to pay Hughes $75 million.

A Ford spokeswoman declined to comment other than to say that the money was properly reported in the auto maker’s financial results for 1987, even though it was not specifically identified in that report.

Sources close to the patent case say Ford wanted to keep the agreement secret because it was embarrassed by the large amount of the loss. At the same time, the award provided Hughes with badly needed income at a time when its operations were being hurt by other problems.

Turner, who sits on the U.S. Claims Court bench in Washington, wrote in his ruling last September that “the agreement provided for payment to Hughes by Ford of an amount which, though shielded from public disclosure, may fairly be characterized as highly significant even to large corporations in the aerospace industry.”

Used 2 Law Firms

In the settlement, which was executed Sept. 10, 1987, Hughes agreed to a provision that released Ford customers from any liability for infringement. Turner quoted the secret agreement as saying, “The license granted hereunder shall extend to all customers for and users of said devices made or sold by Ford. . . . ”

When the Justice Department heard about the Ford settlement, its patent attorneys immediately believed that the provision would release the government from any liability on the satellites that Ford built for the government.

And Turner ruled that the language of the agreement “could hardly be more clear cut.”

Turner went even further in his opinion, saying: “Hughes, drafter of the settlement agreement, could have avoided the current dispute merely by inserting ‘except the United States’ after the language releasing Ford customers and users of Ford products.”

The reason such language was not inserted may be related to the fact that Hughes had two different law firms pursuing its patentinfringement claims.

For more than a decade, well-known patent attorney Sheldon Karon of Chicago successfully represented Hughes in its case against the government. But in the Ford settlement, Hughes’ in-house lawyers turned to Latham & Watkins of Los Angeles.

Asked why he had not handled the Ford settlement, Karon responded: “I don’t know. You would have to ask Dick Alden that.”

The reference was to Richard Alden, who was both general counsel of Hughes Aircraft and a senior parter of Latham & Watkins for many years. In 1985, he retired from the law firm but remained at Hughes, taking the additional title of vice chairman there, until his retirement last year. He could not be reached for comment.

Walker, the managing partner of Latham & Watkins, said he is not familiar with the details of the Ford settlement, but he asserted strongly that the law firm had not erred.

“If you are asking whether Latham & Watkins made a mistake,” he said, “everything I know is that we didn’t make a mistake at all in the case.”

Karon said he did not personally believe that the Ford settlement was flawed.

“I wasn’t there in the negotiation,” he remarked. “I have seen enough of these situations where hindsight is 20/20. I don’t know what kinds of things were left vague in the hopes of getting by.”

Karon asserted unsuccessfully before the Claims Court that since Hughes had never claimed any liability by the government in its suit against Ford, there could not be a release of government liability in the settlement.

Rejected Argument

Turner rejected that and other Hughes arguments. He found that Ford had fully understood what the release meant and that there had not been a “mutual mistake.”

The judge wrote: “At best, therefore, there was a unilateral mistake, which is insufficient as a matter of law to invalidate the release.”

After Turner’s ruling, Hughes made several attempts to obtain a rehearing. And still another law firm began representing Hughes.Kirkland & Ellis, a big Chicago law firm, made court filings asking for a rehearing on the matter.

U.S. in Last-Ditch Effort to Thwart Suit by Hughes
Aerospace: The Pentagon allegedly stole satellite technology. A judgment up to $1.2 billion is expected in 23-year-old case.                                                             Ralph Vartabedian from the Los Angeles Times May 23, 1994                                                                                   Reprinted With Permission

WASHINGTON — Staring at a likely $1-billion judgment, the federal government is making an 11th-hour effort to undermine apatent infringement case brought by Hughes Aircraft 23 years ago.

A final ruling on the amount owed to Hughes by the government is expected to be handed down by the end of May by U.S. Court of Claims Judge James T. Turner, who presided over a one-year trial in 1988 and has been methodically considering a final ruling for five years.

Attorneys close to the case and outside experts predict that Turner’s ruling is likely to fall in a range of $800 million to $1.2 billion, making it the largest patent judgment in history against the federal government.

Even now in the face of the verdict, lawyers from the Justice Department are searching for a magic bullet that would deflate theHughes case, which alleges the Pentagon stole the technology that enabled the communications satellite revolution.

Justice Department attorneys are seeking any information or theories from outsiders or experts that might blow a hole in Hughes’case, according to several defense-industry and patent attorneys across the country.

“They are having apoplexy because they are afraid Congress is going to kill them,” said Herbert Fenster, a leading defense-industry lawyer. “They are trying to find some technical way to kill the case.”

Justice attorneys declined to be interviewed, but in response to a question about the efforts, department spokesman John Russell acknowledged: “We are always looking for evidence for bolstering our arguments.”

The last-ditch effort has amazed Hughes attorneys. “They have dredged up everything over the years,” said Sheldon Karon, a Chicago attorney who represents the company. “Some of it has been in the class of Elvis sightings. I can’t imagine what they would find at this stage.”

Hughes asserted in the case that the Pentagon infringed on an invention by Donald Williams, a brilliant young engineer at Hugheswho in the early 1960s developed a simple lightweight device for controlling a communications satellite in orbit. With Williams’ concept, a spinning satellite can be controlled in every axis with just a single rocket thruster.

The Claims Court has already ruled that Hughes’ patent was valid and that the government indeed infringed upon it. The last step is the monetary ruling.

The award will depend on two parts, the royalty rate on the value of the satellites and the interest rate to compensate Hughes for the long delays in getting its money. Hughes is seeking a 15% royalty rate, while the Justice Department has argued for 1%.

And the Justice Department has also suggested that the interest accruing on those royalties should be based on short-term Treasury Department bills, while Hughes has argued that its annual return on equity would represent how it could have invested the royalties.

The judgment could be as little as $84 million if Turner fully accepts the Justice Department’s formula, according to Victor Savikas, a Hughes attorney in Los Angeles. But Savikas added that the Los Angeles-based defense contractor could realize a mind-boggling $6 billion under the company’s preferred formula.

Turner, who is widely praised for his careful rulings, is likely to throw out both positions, striving for a conservative decision that will withstand likely appeals. Experts say the most probable outcome is a 5% to 8% royalty rate and interest based on the same rate that the IRS uses to compensate taxpayers on old refunds. On that basis, the verdict would fall into a range of $800 million to $1.2 billion.

Hughes attorneys say they give Justice Department lawyers credit for stalling the patent award for so many years. “The government hasn’t paid a dime,” Karon said. “They have done a good job of staving off judgment day. John Gacy went 14 years before he took his final walk. This is even longer.”

Hughes Wins $114 Million in Patent Case
Technology: It is the largest such award ever against the U.S. government, but it falls far short of the company’s expectations.                                                         Ralph Vartabedian 
from the Los Angeles Times June 18, 1994,                       Reprinted With Permission

After a two-decade legal battle, a judge Friday awarded Hughes Aircraft $114 million for the aerospace firm’s patent claim that the U.S. government stole the technology that enabled the communications satellite revolution.

Although the award ranks as the largest ever levied against the federal government for patent infringement, it falls far below even the smallest sum that Hughes hoped to win in the high-stakes case. Both sides are expected to appeal.

When the trial began in 1988, Hughes had sought an award of $1.2 billion, and at one time company attorneys speculated about a potential award of $6 billion. But the firm’s high hopes were dashed Friday by a 26-page opinion from U.S. Court of Claims Judge James T. Turner.

“I am shocked that it is this low,” said Mark Meltzer, a former Hughes attorney who worked on the patent case. “This is a lot lower than anybody expected. Taxpayers should be delighted.”

But Victor Savikas, an attorney representing Hughes, said the award “is a lot of money, though we asked for more.”

Justice Department lawyer Vito Di- Pietro, representing the government, said Turner’s decision on the actual value of the patent“was exactly what we had proposed and exactly what was supported by the evidence.”

The Hughes patent involved a device invented by Donald T. Williams, a brilliant young Harvard-educated engineer at Hughes in the 1960s who later committed suicide. Williams devised a simple, lightweight system to control the attitude of a satellite with a single rocket thruster.

In 1963, Hughes launched its Syncom, the first communications satellite. It paved the way for Hughes to dominate the world market, which it does even today. The effort was all the more impressive given that the Pentagon’s own attempt to build such a spacecraft resulted in a design so heavy that no rocket at the time could launch it.

As a result of the technical success of the Williams patent, Hughes had long expected to reap major rewards. Last fall, Turner ruled that the government had infringed the patent on 81 satellites over the years, worth a total of $3.5 billion.

The final step in the case involved determining the royalty rate and an interest penalty. In both areas, Hughes got less than it wanted.

Turner rejected the company’s assertion that it deserved a royalty of 15% on the $3.5 billion worth of government satellites using the device. Instead, Turner awarded a 1% royalty rate, exactly what the Justice Department had proposed as fair.

Among the millions of documents involved in the case, a few key pieces of evidence appear to have seriously deflated Hughes’claims.

In his ruling, Turner found that shortly after obtaining its patent, Hughes offered a direct competitor a license at a rate equivalent to about 1.2%. In a letter, Hughes cited that as its normal royalty for scientific and experimental satellites.

Moreover, Hughes was never able to license the invention to even a single company, excluding Ford Motor Co., which settled a separate infringement suit by Hughes.

But Savikas said the letter cited by Turner was involved in settlement negotiations for a civil suit and thus should not have been admitted as evidence–apparently raising a potential appeal issue. And he said the failure to obtain other licenses resulted in large part from the government’s infringement in the first place.

For Judge Turner, the ruling means he is free at last of the long-running dispute, and in honor of the occasion, he retreated to his chambers and broke open a bottle of champagne after handing down his decision.

How much of the award will be consumed by legal fees remains unclear. Meltzer said Hughes’ past legal expenses have amounted to “a significant percentage of this award.” But Savikas, Hughes’ current attorney, insisted that the company’s legal fees are “not anywhere near a substantial part of the award.”