On Aug. 1, the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) issued a long-awaited final request for proposals for a program designed to institutionalize the use of excess payload capacity aboard commercial satellites for military and other U.S. government missions.

The Hosted Payload Solutions (HoPS) contract is an indefinite-quantity, indefinite-delivery contracting vehicle intended to create a stable of companies qualified to provide hosted payload services to the Air Force. The idea is to reduce the number of bureaucratic and technical hoops the service must jump through to rent space aboard commercial satellites.

It remains to be seen how often the cash-strapped Air Force will leverage the HoPS contracting vehicle once it is established — the initial user could well be NASA — but for an organization as maddeningly process-bound and change-resistant as SMC, the solicitation’s final release can only be seen as measurable progress.  

The impetus for the HoPS contracting vehicle came from SMC’s commander, Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, who took the helm of the Pentagon’s space procurement shop in June 2011. Shortly thereafter, she set up the Hosted Payload Office at SMC to explore ways to leverage hosted payload opportunities, in part by sorting through the lessons of past experience.

A key pathfinder was the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload project, an SMC-led effort that saw an experimental missile warning sensor launched aboard a communications satellite owned by SES in September 2011. Among the most important lessons is that government payloads, which are much more susceptible to delays than prospective commercial host spacecraft, must be compatible with multiple platforms to avoid being stranded if an initially targeted flight opportunity is missed.

Accordingly, the HoPS contracting vehicle establishes standard interfaces and other technical and operational requirements for hosting government payloads. These will give the Air Force the flexibility it needs to stay in step with an industry that generally marches to a quicker cadence.

Pawlikowski certainly had lots of help in getting the HoPS solicitation out the door. Among those deserving recognition are Air Force Col. Scott Beidleman, SMC’s director of development planning, who did much of the heavy lifting, and Janet Nickloy, who chairs the Hosted Payload Alliance, an industry coalition that promotes dialog with the government on the subject. 

Industry officials have long expressed frustration at the Air Force’s inertia on the hosted payload front — notwithstanding its pioneering success with the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload project — and have noted missed opportunities, including a once-in-a-generation chance to place sensors aboard 66 planned low orbiting Iridium Next satellites. Thanks to Pawlikowski’s initiative, the Air Force will be in better position to capitalize on these kinds of opportunities beginning next June, when the service expects to award its first HoPS contracts.