After losing $180 million when two satellites strayed off course in space last year, insurance brokers won a major gamble yesterday when the space shuttle's crew successfully retrieved one off-course satellite and headed after the other one.
It was a first for the shuttle and for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which was paid $5.5 million by the brokers for the satellite retrieval. The brokers had also paid $5 million to Hughes Aircraft Co. for technical help in retrieving the satellite.
The Indonesian satellite Palapa B2 was safely secured, but only after space-walking astronauts had to wrestle it into the shuttle cargo bay because an unforeseen obstacle prevented use of the spacecraft's robot arm.
Despite careful handling by astronauts Joseph Allen and Dale Gardner, there was some damage to the glassy, power-generating solar cells surrounding the 7-foot-wide satellite, mission commander Frederick Hauck said. "There's no question some of the solar cells on that satellite were damaged," Hauck said. The damage isn't expected to interfere with a successful relaunching of the satellite.
Assuming that the crew succeeds in recovering a second satellite -- Westar VI, which previously belonged to Western Union Telegraph Co. -- insurance underwriters stand to recover up to $70 million from the resale of the two satellites, underwriters said yesterday. The second recovery attempt is scheduled for Wednesday.
"We would expect [to be paid] between $30 [million] and $40 million for Palapa and somewhat less for Westar," said Stephen Merrett, chairman of Merrett Syndicates Ltd., a leading space-insurance syndicate within Lloyds of London that underwrote most of the risk for the Palapa and Westar satellites.
The underwriters will be spending up to $5 million to refurbish the satellites before reselling them, Merrett said.
Although Merrett would not identify interested clients, Indonesia may repurchase its former satellite. "We believe it is quite possible they might be interested in the satellite," Merrett said. He added that Western Union is unlikely to be interested in buying back its former satellite.
The retrieval elated Merrett, who conceded that at first he thought the mission was a long shot. "When we first entered into it, I think we had very little idea whether it would be possible to launch the mission at all. . . . We hadn't banked on it being a successful recovery and are still waiting for the ultimate results on Wednesday," Merrett said from NASA mission headquarters in Houston.
The success of the first retrieval mission has encouraged insurance underwriters, some of whom stopped underwriting satellites after three mishaps last year cost the space-insurance underwriters close to $300 million.
Principal space-insurance underwriter Lloyds of London and other American underwriters paid out the sum last year when three satellites, Palapa, Westar VI, and an Intelsat satellite could not be positioned in proper orbits. The Intelsat satellite cannot be recovered because of its location in space.
The mishaps caused insurance rates to skyrocket from between 5 and 10 percent of the value of a satellite and its launch costs to between 15 to 20 percent, or from $10 million to $20 million per launch, industry sources say. Potential clients withdrew their plans for satellite launches, waiting for the rates to drop.
"The rates are in the range of 14 to 20 percent -- 20 percent is obviously high," said Brian Stockwell, president of Corroon & Black Inspace, a Washington insurance broker that underwrote much of the Indonesian satellite. "Hopefully, rates will settle to the lower range of that band when people get their courage back," he said.
Insurance brokers are still nervous this week awaiting a slew of satellite launches and Wednesday's Westar recovery mission. "A lot of people are holding their breaths through Wednesday," Stockwell said. So far this week, the French consortium Arianespace has successfully launched a satellite for the U.S. Navy and one for GTE/Spacenet, in addition to the satellites being deployed by the shuttle on this mission. Insurance for those endeavors is costing the industry about $250 million in additional risk underwriting, Merrett estimated.