The launch of 29 experimental payloads from Wallops Island, Va., in a mission dubbed Operationally Responsive Space (ORS)-3 represents a triumph for a pair of programs that the U.S. Air Force has sought to eliminate to save a few tens of millions of dollars per year.
All of the experiments carried to orbit Nov. 19 aboard the Minotaur 1 rocket were sponsored in some form either by the ORS Office or Space Test Program (STP), according to a fact sheet distributed by the ORS Office. The Air Force, in its 2013 budget request, proposed eliminating both programs but has run into congressional resistance.
In its 2014 budget request, the service reinstated the STP, which for decades has found rides to orbit for promising space technologies. The ORS Office, however, remains in the Air Force’s cross-hairs, although the service, under congressional pressure, recently agreed to keep it open for another year.
The ORS-3 launch exemplified the value of both programs. In addition to the primary payload, the multimission STPSat-3 spacecraft, the launch carried a host of cubesats and other microsatellites, many built by university — and in one case high school — students. Having helped train a new generation of space engineers, these experiments are now on orbit demonstrating new mission concepts and sensor technologies.
Among the notable payloads aboard the STPSat-3 is a civilian solar irradiance sensor that will continue a record of climate change measurements spanning nearly three decades. That data record was threatened with a large gap when NASA’s Glory satellite was lost in a launch failure in 2011. That STPSat-3 was able to host the Total solar irradiance Calibration Transfer Experiment, originally built to fly on a space shuttle mission, was pure serendipity. The accommodations became available when Air Force officials determined that one of the payloads originally slated to fly on STPSat-3 would not be ready in time.
Such flights of opportunity will become harder to come by if the ORS program finally does go away, as seems likely. The space community can take some solace in Air Force’s apparent change of heart — even if congressionally influenced — on the STP program, but in this day and age, nothing can be taken for granted.