NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. Defense Department’s space program risks being rendered “ineffective” because of high costs and lengthy development cycles, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), said Jan. 13.

Arati Prabhakar, DARPA’s director, likened what happens with military space programs to ducks freezing into place on the water.

There’s “something going on inside the national security community in space that’s actually quite troubling,” Prabhakar said during a science and technology forum hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “That has to do with how slow and costly it is for us today to do anything we need to do on orbit for national security purposes.”

U.S. military satellite development programs can take up to a decade and cost billions of dollars. 

“I think we’re in the middle of a self-inflicted surprise,” she said. The current environment is “putting us in a place we simply cannot afford to be.”

DARPA, in an effort to reduce the cost of launching satellites, announced in November it was beginning an effort to design a reusable spaceplane that could debut in 2018 and ultimately fly 10 times in 10 days. The spaceplane would deliver payloads into low Earth orbit for less than $5 million a launch.

Additionally, the agency has technology development contracts with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Virgin Galactic to develop an air-launched system designed to place satellites weighing up to 45 kilograms into orbit for $1 million each.

Prabhakar said the Defense Department needs to work more closely with the broader technology community and the general public, including civilian and commercial space communities. Not only do both groups have shared interests, she said, but the challenges are so significant that “we won’t get there any other way.”

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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...