WASHINGTON — A U.S. senator from New Mexico has lifted his hold on the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next secretary of the U.S. Air Force after service officials assured him they would keep a rapid-response military space office in the state through 2014.

The office of Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) announced the move Oct. 1. 

However, the nomination of Deborah Lee James to replace the now-retired Michael Donley as Air Force secretary still faces a hold from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). 

Heinrich’s hold on the nomination stemmed from concerns about the Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, established at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., in 2007 to quickly develop low-cost space capabilities in response to emerging military needs. The office has faced a near-continuous budget struggle in recent years, but its very existence was thrown into doubt when the Air Force, in its 2013 budget request, disclosed plans to eliminate the office and transfer its activities to the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. 

Currently, the ORS Office is funded by the Air Force but reports to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Heinrich was among a group of New Mexico lawmakers including Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, both Democrats, who wrote Donley in June to express “serious concerns” with the Air Force plan, which they said was “at direct odds with existing statute.”

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 appeared to be exactly what Air Force leaders planned to do.  

To protest the Air Force’s plan, which was outlined again in the service’s 2014 budget request, Heinrich placed a hold on the president’s nomination of James on Sept. 25.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Thomas Bergeson, who serves in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, was able to mollify Heinrich with a Sept. 27 letter that said the service would keep the ORS Office in New Mexico — at least for now.

“The Air Force is committed to keeping the ORS office in place and at Kirtland Air Force Base at least through Fiscal Year 2014,” the letter says. “The ORS office has been realigned under the Space and Missile System Center (SMC) Commander as directed by the FY13 National Defense Authorization Act, but will remain separate from other SMC organizations. We will maintain the current ORS staff to include contracted efforts of 31 Full Time Equivalents spread over 33 individuals for on-going ORS projects and activities for the aforementioned time period.”

After meeting with Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning and receiving Bergeson’s letter, Heinrich released the hold.

“Congress has been very clear in rejecting the proposed termination of this important program. The purpose of my hold was to ensure the Air Force followed the law and allow for the continuation of the ORS program and the work they are doing for our national security,” Heinrich said in a prepared statement. “ORS will ultimately save the Air Force and taxpayers money. In a time of serious fiscal constraints, it is critical that we continue to look for ways to reduce costs over time by making marginal investments in programs that deliver tangible benefits to the military. I appreciate the Air Force’s cooperation and reconsideration, and I look forward to continue our work together to ensure the ORS program remains intact.”

The Air Force requested no funding for the ORS Office in 2013, but Congress ultimately appropriated $105 million. The Air Force similarly requested no funding for the office in 2014, but the Senate Appropriations Committee, in marking up its version of the 2014 defense spending bill, recommended providing $10 million. The House Appropriations Committee did not recommend funding the program, however.

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...