Rocket Man

How a USF law alumnus is helping launch the satellite revolution

By ARVIN TEMKAR, USF NEWS Posted Wed, 04/18/2018 - 12:11

For decades, satellites — which bring us everything from weather reports to GPS — have grown larger and more expensive. Some are as big as a school bus and cost upwards of a billion dollars. But now, startups are building ultra-small satellites that could revolutionize the industry by making satellite technology more affordable, easier to replace, and accessible to everyone. At Virgin Orbit, Richard DalBello JD ’79 is working to launch the so-called “smallsat revolution.”

“In the old days it would take you a decade to build a $2 billion satellite,” says DalBello, who’s worked in the satellite industry for nearly 40 years. “Today you can crank out satellites in weeks, or even days.”

Silicon Valley startups, for example, are creating satellites the size of bread loaves that can take up-close pictures of the entire Earth every day. “This new generation of satellites will allow us to monitor the weather and the effects of climate change and natural disasters far more accurately,” DalBello says.

Made-to-order satellite launches

But there’s a problem: Many startups don’t have the cash to launch their devices into space. That’s where Virgin Orbit comes in. The company is building new technology to launch smallsats and other devices for a fraction of the price.

“Last year there were only 90 space launches in the entire world. It’s not easy for a startup to ‘hitch a ride’ on a rocket to test their products,” says DalBello. “But with our services, startups will be able to purchase regular rides to space to deploy and innovate on their satellites. Even NASA wants to partner with us.”

Rather than a launch pad, Virgin plans to use a modified Boeing 747 airplane called Cosmic Girl to air-launch reusable rockets carrying smallsats.

As vice president of business development and government affairs at Virgin Orbit, DalBello’s job is to get policymakers in Washington, D.C. on board with the small-sat revolution, making it easier for Virgin to conduct launches and for startups to innovate.

Space laws, and space lawyers

DalBello first discovered his passion for space technology while he was a USF law student.

“I was required to write a paper for my international law class about the emerging role of international law in space technology,” says DalBello, who went on to earn an LLM in space law from McGill University. “I got super excited … and it sort of never stopped.”

He uses many of the skills he learned in law school almost daily, DalBello says. “The ability to think clearly, argue coherently, write well, and work in a competitive environment. All the things lawyers do all the time are relevant in my work now.”

DalBello has held top positions at the White House, NASA, and the Satellite Industry Association, a trade group focused on satellite policy and regulation.

Space station diplomacy

At the White House in the 1990s, he helped convince the Russians to participate in the International Space Station. After the fall of the Soviet Union, America didn’t want underemployed Soviet rocket scientists to sell their talents to the highest bidder, he says. So he acted as liaison to invite the Russians to partner in the construction of the space station, now the world’s primary hub for human spaceflight and research.

The result? “The Russians are still in the space station and have been for more than 15 years,” he says. “Since NASA ended the shuttle program in 2011, the only way Americans travel to the space station is on Russian rockets. So they’ve played an outsize role in our space program.”

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