WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has warmed to the idea that placing military payloads aboard commercial satellites is a low-cost way to field new capabilities, but the service has yet to commit the funding that will bring out the best concepts from aerospace companies, a group of industry officials said Oct. 9. 

Speaking at the Hosted Payload Summit here organized by Access Intelligence, these officials said the Air Force has taken concrete steps toward leveraging hosted payload opportunities. But they also said the service — and more importantly Congress — have yet to fully integrate hosted payloads into future planning.

Nicole Robinson, vice president of communications and government affairs for SES Government Solutions of McLean, Va., said industry leaders needed to remind Congress that hosted payloads are not one-off, one-time programs but instead should be viewed as a key component of programs that will require consistent long-term funding.

Without a greater commitment, “it’s difficult for private companies to push for investment,” said Jim Simpson, vice president of business development at Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems.

The summit was expected to bring together executives from industry and government to discuss ways to fully leverage the hosted payload opportunity. But the conversation was largely one-sided: Due to the government shutdown, the half-dozen or so senior Air Force, Defense Department and NASA officials who were scheduled to participate were absent.

Hosted payloads are among a number of reforms the Air Force is exploring to cope with new budget realties. Panelists — almost exclusively from the aerospace industry — said they believe recent activity at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles, which procures U.S. military space systems, shows the service is serious about change.

Chuck Cynamon, vice president of U.S. government business development for Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., was optimistic about the future of hosted payloads, noting that the Air Force is taking them into account as it studies alternate architectures for many of its major satellite programs. “The bad news is none [of the studies] have found where hosted payloads fit,” said Cynamon, who as an Air Force colonel led the advanced concepts group at SMC.

Nonetheless, the panelists pointed to SMC’s request for proposals for the Hosted Payload Solutions (HoPS) contracting vehicle, released Aug. 1, as evidence that the Air Force understands the benefit of hosted payloads. The aim of HoPS is to set a stable of qualified providers of services for hosted payload missions.

Throughout the day, HoPS and the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, an experimental Air Force missile-warning sensor that was launched in 2011 aboard the SES-2 telecommunications satellite owned by fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, were celebrated as harbingers of the future.

Other measures the Air Force could take to more fully capitalize on the hosted payload opportunity include exhibiting more flexibility in assembling program requirements, panelists said. Too often, the requirements leave room for only one solution and foreclose the possibility of creative alternatives, said Rich Pang, senior director of hosted payloads for SES Government Solutions.

But Pang also said the Air Force in more recent bid solicitations has kept its requirements broad enough to allow for creative solutions. 

Panelists agreed that certain applications, such as missile warning or weather monitoring, are a good fit for hosted payload solutions. Air Force officials issued a request for information Aug. 5 for a prototype wide-field-of-view staring sensor payload to be hosted aboard a yet-to-be-selected commercial communications satellite, for example.

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...