Editorial | For SBIRS GEO-1, a Very Long Road to Operations

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It was without fanfare that the U.S. Air Force on May 17 officially activated the first dedicated satellite in its new-generation missile warning constellation, perhaps understandably so: The activation came more than two years after the satellite’s May 7, 2011, launch.

The extended checkout of the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO-1 spacecraft provided what hopefully was the final piece of drama to one of the most notoriously troubled military space development programs in memory. SBIRS went on contract in 1996 – seemingly an eternity ago – with an estimated $3 billion price tag and a targeted initial launch date of 2002. But the program quickly ran into technical difficulty and funding instability that led to an exhaustive series of delays, driving its price tag well above the $10 billion mark and making it the unofficial poster child for the Pentagon’s space acquisition woes of the era.

First-of-a-kind government satellites typically take longer to check out in orbit than subsequent models, but two years is highly unusual, even for a system as complex as SBIRS. Just for the sake of comparison, the Air Force’s first Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure communications satellite reached its operational orbit in October 2011 – it took more than a year to get there due to a post-launch propulsion glitch – and completed on orbit testing some four months later.

As SBIRS GEO-1 testing dragged on, the Air Force was vague at best when asked about the satellite’s status, attributing the lengthy process to a correctable on-board communications issue and giving no indication of concern. The fact that the Air Force proceeded with the launch of SBIRS GEO-2 in March attests to the service’s confidence that the problem was minor. 

But given the history of SBIRS, whose development phase was replete with ultimately false assurances that the program’s problems were being brought under control, one could be forgiven for wondering if GEO-1’s issues were more serious than portrayed. With the satellite having finally been declared operational, perhaps a sigh of relief is in order – here’s hoping things are going more smoothly with GEO-2.