Editorial | Keeping DARPA in the Game

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The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) ruffled a few industry feathers in canceling the System F6 fractionated spacecraft flight experiment, but the agency still has a respectable space portfolio featuring efforts to develop a small-satellite launcher and demonstrate the feasibility of salvaging residual capabilities from spent satellites.

The question is whether these high-risk activities will come to fruition — many of DARPA’s initiatives don’t — and if not, what else is in the pipeline.

In confirming and explaining the decision to terminate the Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange, or System F6, mission, Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, emphasized that the agency is not shying away from big bets on space-based research, something the agency — created in the wake of the Soviet Union’s 1957 Sputnik launch — has done in the past. Mr. Tousley expressed enthusiasm for two ongoing DARPA space efforts: Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA), intended to field a super-low-cost small-satellite launching system; and Phoenix, which would revitalize inactive satellites in geostationary orbit. Both are on track for flight demonstrations in the next few years, he said.

DARPA’s 2014 budget request appears to back Mr. Tousley’s assertion. The agency is seeking $40 million each for the ALASA and Phoenix efforts next year, compared with $29 million and $28 million, respectively, in 2013. Overall, DARPA is requesting nearly $173 million for Space Programs and Technology next year, a roughly $10 million increase over 2013. 

But System F6 was the biggest single item in DARPA’s space-related budget; subtract its previously anticipated $50 million contribution to 2014 and the total looks far less impressive. It remains to be seen how much, if any, of that money will be appropriated next year for F6 program closeout or other space activities.

This not to say DARPA should have stayed the course on System F6, which had a checkered past that included a prime contract termination and a restructuring. Mr. Tousley said the mission’s elements were not coming together in a way that gave him confidence that DARPA could launch by 2015, in large part because of a peculiar program structure in which no contractor had responsibility for overall system integration. 

Some industry officials associated with the project were nonetheless critical, in part because in canceling the flight demonstration DARPA willingly wrote off a taxpayer investment that, according to budget documents, had already topped $200 million. That’s understandable — the idea of squandering government resources is especially hard to stomach in this day and age. But it’s probably fair to say that DARPA was in the best position to judge whether bringing System F6 to a flight demo was worth an additional funding commitment that, given the program’s history and contracting structure, could have been considerable.

Besides, program failures come with the territory at DARPA, whose job is to push promising military technologies beyond their known limitations.

The more salient question is how DARPA’s space portfolio will fare in the lean years ahead. ALASA and Phoenix are certainly intriguing — ALASA offers new hope for truly low-cost access to space, which would be a real breakthrough. But those hopes have been dashed repeatedly due to the technical difficulty; in DARPA’s case, two fairly recent efforts to develop low-cost airborne launching systems ended in failure. Phoenix also appears to have high technical hurdles, so it’s not difficult to envision either project faltering. Meanwhile, Mr. Tousley is decidedly noncommittal on another interesting project dubbed SeeMe, which is ultimately aimed at fielding a constellation of imaging microsatellites capable of downlinking directly to low-echelon forces. 

As it stands now, DARPA is anticipating flat funding, at about $170 million annually, for space activities over the next five years. Holding to that number could prove challenging in the current fiscal environment, especially with System F6 now out of the equation, but it’s a worthy goal. With so many other military funding sources for space-related research and development drying up, senior Pentagon and DARPA officials, along with Congress, should put a premium on keeping this important avenue open.