Space

Former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine joins Viasat’s board

TAMPA, Fla. — Jim Bridenstine has joined satellite operator Viasat’s board of directors in his second corporate role since stepping down as NASA’s administrator.

U.S.-based Viasat is enlarging its board to eight members to add Bridenstine, who became a senior advisor for private equity firm Acorn Growth Companies soon after resigning from NASA Jan. 20 at the end of the Trump administration.

“I am very excited about the opportunity to get involved in a lot of the commercial capabilities of Viasat, increasing throughput and increasing bandwidth for humanity, connecting more of the world than ever before,” Bridenstine told SpaceNews in an interview.

Viasat has been investing heavily in a three-satellite ViaSat-3 terabit broadband constellation, which will transform the company into a global service provider.

The first Viasat-3 satellite will serve the Americas and will likely launch early next year, after pandemic-related supply chain disruption pushed it from the end of 2021.

“ViaSat-3 is going to be providing capacity that is going to compete against terrestrial networks,” Bridenstine said.

“We’re talking about a satellite constellation that can deliver per terabit second of throughput. We’re talking about constellations after that, that are going to deliver as much as five or even seven terabits per second of throughput.”

Bridenstine said Viasat’s ability to tackle the digital divide by driving down costs, in part by increasing the supply of bandwidth, is one of the reasons he approached the company about a month and a half ago.

“There’s a huge digital divide, not just in the United States of America but in the world, and that digital divide has consequences as it relates to the economy and education and healthcare — and all of the other things that we care about as a civilization,” he said.

It is an issue that the COVID-19 pandemic has helped push to the top of government agendas, as more activities were moved online to combat the spread of the virus. 

Analysts have said accelerated digitalization trends could result in permanent changes to workplace and other practices, although the extent of this remains unclear.

In a Feb. 4 letter to shareholders, Viasat said revenue for its satellite services division increased 4% year-on-year to $221 million for the three months to Dec. 31, after demand for U.S. fixed broadband helped offset a pandemic-driven decline in-flight connectivity.

Viasat said it will draw upon Bridenstine’s experience in space technology, innovation and safety as it plots future services for its consumer, enterprise and government customers.

Asked whether his appointment could result in tweaks to Viasat’s business strategy, Bridenstine said “right now I’m just looking forward to rolling up my sleeves, getting to work, learning more about the company and then seeing where the areas [are] that I can add the most value.”

One area on his radar concerns the threat of megaconstellations to space safety and the overall space access environment.

Viasat has warned that SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network, the world’s largest commercial satellite constellation that also seeks to compete with terrestrial telcos, poses environmental hazards in space and on Earth. 

In December 2020, Viasat petitioned the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to conduct an environmental review Starlink, before its grants SpaceX permission to operate nearly 3,000 more satellites in lower orbits.

“The bottom line is the direction we’re going right now in space as it relates to orbital debris and megaconstellations … in my view is not sustainable,” Bridenstine said.

“And it’s going to require the U.S. government to make decisions to make it sustainable for future generations. That’s not a Viasat issue, it’s an issue that’s important for the United States of America, and it’s an issue that’s important for humanity.”

Mark Dankberg, Viasat’s co-founder and executive chairman, said in a prepared statement: “[Bridenstine’s] insight into all aspects of advanced space programs can help ensure Viasat remains at the forefront of space system and network technology globally. 

“And, because of the pivotal role he’s played in expanding the U.S. manned space program, Jim is also an ardent proponent of preserving safe access to space via proactive measures to protect the space environment and contain orbital debris.”

NASA launched a new human lunar exploration mission through the Artemis program under Bridenstine’s leadership.

Bridenstine also led partnering efforts with U.S. companies under the Commercial Crew Program, which resupplied the International Space Station with American rockets for the first time since the end of the Shuttle program in 2011.

Before serving as NASA’s administrator between April 2018 and January 2021, Bridenstine was a member of Congress, representing Oklahoma’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He also served on the Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee.

His career in federal service began as a pilot in the United States Navy in 1998.

US President Joe Biden March 19 nominated Bill Nelson, a former astronaut who represented Florida in the senate from 2001-2019, as NASA’s next administrator.

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