As Pentagon Tightens Belt, Satellite Industry Hopes DoD Stays Hungry for Pathfinder Projects

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WASHINGTON — Even as the U.S. Defense Department scales back spending following a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon must continue to set aside money for experimenting with new space acquisition techniques, a panel of industry executives said here at the Satellite 2014 trade show.

In a session titled, “The Defense Budget Crunch: The Impact on the Satellite Industry,” representatives from the commercial satellite industry said future space technologies must have advocates for out-of-the-box thinking or else risk another generation of status quo capabilities.

“We don’t want to stop in new areas,” said Tom Sheridan, vice president of national security space for the SI Organization, a systems engineering and integration contractor. Sheridan pointed to the success of the pioneering Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) mission that launched in September 2011.

CHIRP was installed and launched into orbit aboard the SES-2 telecommunications satellite owned by fleet operator SES of Luxembourg. Industry officials have held up the mission as a successful pathfinder, one they hope will lead to an increase in government payloads on commercial satellites in the future. But Sheridan said the program also helped spawn work on next-generation techniques for two other missile warning sensors the Air Force is currently evaluating.

>While praising the CHIRP program, the panelists said similar next-generation efforts need advocates within the Pentagon and Congress.

“Every budget cycle people try to kill these programs,” said Kay Sears, the president of Intelsat General and one of the panelists. “We have a lot of good ideas but they don’t get shepherded through the system.”

One of those programs is known as the COMSATCOM Pathfinder. In a March 7 posting on the Federal Business Opportunities website, the Air Force said it is searching on behalf of U.S. Africa Command for a geostationary-orbiting satellite with multiple transponders available to lease for the remainder of the satellite’s life. But Sears said it is unclear where money for that program will come from.

“We’ve got to protect these programs when they go through the [funding process] deliberately,” said David Anhalt, vice president and general manager of the Iridium Prime program at Iridium Communications.

Robert Minehart, a senior policy adviser for the House Intelligence Committee, encouraged the commercial satellite industry to seek out House members and share their ideas. “You really have to knock on the door,” he said.

 

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