ORS-1. Credit: Orbital ATK

WASHINGTON — For the second year in a row, the U.S. Air Force is moving to close a rapid-response military space office and, in a repeat of 2012, members of Congress are fighting to reverse the decision.

But congressional intervention has yet to secure stable funding for Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, which the Pentagon stood up in 2007 to quickly develop low-cost space capabilities in response to emerging military needs.

A cloud of uncertainty has hung over the ORS Office since 2010, when the Air Force proposed rolling back its nearly $125 million annual budget to $94 million with further reductions planned through 2014. Last year the Air Force went a step further, proposing to shut down the ORS Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., and fold ORS concepts into other military space programs.

Congress balked and ultimately appropriated $105 million for the program for 2013.

In its 2014 budget request, sent to Congress in April, the Air Force again said it plans to terminate the 6-year-old office. The Air Force wants to transfer ORS responsibilities to the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center — SMC for short — in Los Angeles. The ORS Office is funded by the Air Force but directed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Once again, some lawmakers are pushing back.

In a June 4 letter to Michael Donley, the U.S. Air Force secretary who has since retired, Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) said they would work to ensure ORS received funding in 2014. The group wrote that they had “serious concerns” with the Air Force request and saw it as “at direct odds with existing statue.”

“These actions are deeply disturbing because they not only are inconsistent with public law but they are at odds with our national space strategy,” the letter reads.

After last year’s attempt to shutter the office, Congress added language to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act that says the ORS Office “may not be co-located with the headquarters facilities of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.’’

However, that appears to be exactly what Air Force leaders plan to do. Air Force officials explained their logic in budget request documents. 

“SMC will then be better able to improve resilience, survivability, and flexibility within programs across the SMC portfolio and to explore space mission augmentation options,” the budget request reads. “The Department of Defense will support the new approach by developing architectures for space mission areas that will include international cooperation and commercial solutions and will also look at how space missions are sustained and augmented to support the warfighter in all contingencies”

In response, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) sponsored an amendment in the House version of the 2014 defense authorization bill to get answers on the ORS Office. The amendment required Congress to hold back half of the funding for part of a missile warning satellite program, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), until the Pentagon can explain how its ORS actions comply with the authorization act. 

“The Air Force appreciates Rep. Lamborn’s long-standing support of Air Force Space and understands his concerns, but disagrees that SBIRS funding should be withheld,” Maj. Eric Badger, an Air Force spokesman, wrote in response to questions from SpaceNews.

While some lawmakers are pushing back on the closure, neither the House nor Senate has come up with funding for the office.

The $500 billion defense appropriations bill that cleared the House Appropriations Committee in June included no funding for ORS. The Senate Appropriations Committee, which includes New Mexico’s Udall as a member, has not introduced its defense bill.

This year’s defense authorization bills, which set policy and funding guidelines but provide no actual money, offer little hope to ORS proponents. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee, in marking up its version of the 2014 defense authorization bill last month, recommended $10 million to keep the ORS office working on a low-cost weather satellite project and reminded the Pentagon it still owes the committee a report how it intends to move ORS concepts into space acquisition programs.

Several ORS satellites have been launched to date, prominently among them the ORS-1 optical surveillance satellite launched in June 2011 in response to demand from U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

ORS has led studies on a distributed satellite architecture known as disaggregation and is currently working with the University of Hawaii on a small-satellite launcher dubbed Spark that is set to debut in October. ORS’s mission, in part, was to infuse fresh ideas and outside of the traditional Air Force mindset.  

The Air Force claims that philosophy has worked. “Operationally responsive space activities are fully integrated into SMC’s ongoing architectures,” the service’s 2014 budget request states.

The Air Force, however, says it no longer can afford to keep the ORS program going.

“Unfortunately, as with many mission areas across the Air Force, we must consolidate resources and cancel programs to meet our fiscal obligations,” Badger wrote. “The FY14 President’s Budget reflects the tough choices we are making now in order to maximize our national defense posture.”

New Mexico’s congressional Democrats disagreed.

“Maintaining the ORS office at Kirtland Air Force Base takes full advantage of the close proximity to the SMC/Space Development Directorate, the Air Force Research Laboratory and other aerospace activities in New Mexico,” their June 4 letter read. “Given the increasingly competitive environment in space and the high cost of procuring traditional, multi-billion dollar satellites, we fear that eliminating the ORS office is penny-wise and pound-foolish.”


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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...