DARPA's Brad Tousley

At a conference in Washington in January, the director of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Arati Prabhakar, pointedly said the Defense Department’s space program risks being rendered “ineffective” because of high costs and lengthy development cycles.

As the director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, Brad Tousley finds himself at the throttle and in the proverbial spotlight, showing the department there is an alternative — meaning faster and cheaper — way of doing business in space.

DARPA’s mission, generally speaking, is to pursue high-risk, high-payoff technology development projects that could someday benefit the military. DARPA officials readily acknowledge that many, if not most, of its initiatives fail — it’s just the nature of the business they’re in.

By the end of 2015, Tousley’s office will have a significantly clearer picture on where it stands on several of its major space initiatives, including a few that have been in the works for many years. 

For example, DARPA is in the midst of an evaluation on the future of the much-discussed Phoenix program, which previously has been characterized as a satellite servicing and salvaging mission but is transitioning to a more loosely defined geo-robotics mission. As part of that effort, Tousley’s office is expected to oversee a demonstration launch of satlets, small modules that perform critical satellite functions.

DARPA is also pursuing a series of efforts to dramatically reduce the cost of launching satellites to space. One of these is the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, which is intended to field a system to launch satellites weighing up to 45 kilograms for $1 million each. Boeing was announced as the winner of the ALASA competition March 24, with a demonstration flight tentatively slated for 2015.

The agency is also expected to make an announcement this year on a contractor for a spaceplane concept dubbed XS-1.

Tousley joined DARPA in January 2013 after serving as director of the technology division at Logos Technologies, which works on hyperspectral imaging, space surveillance and advanced image processing algorithms.

He recently spoke with SpaceNews reporter Mike Gruss.

The concept for the XS-1 spaceplane, at a broad level, is not entirely new. How do you view this as different from past efforts?

In the particular case of XS-1, that’s a suborbital capability that’s reusable. In the past, with a Pegasus, it was an attempt to use modified commercial aircraft as the first stage and then the Pegasus rocket was second stage. In the case of XS-1, we’re going after that suborbital first stage development piece first. We’re trying to drive the cost down. XS-1 is not about a new rocket engine; we want to see what existing rocket engines can be used and integrated in a better way. Can we develop a reusable system out of that? The other part — and it’s a common theme with both of our launch programs — is driving down the range and launch costs.

Why is that so important? 

When you’re fixed at three launch sites like Vandenberg, the Cape and Wallops, you may be vulnerable. What you really want is to be able to launch from various runways, because you want to be able to go to any [orbital] inclination. You’d like to make it much more proliferated across the whole United States. By focusing on reinforcing our existing sites, it becomes much more difficult to reduce the costs and make launch much more affordable and flexible.

So is it accurate to describe the XS-1 program as more of an integration of existing technologies rather than developing new capabilities?

There is some new material, such as monolithic composite structures. There’s a lot of additive manufacturing that’s happened since the last time we tried this that we can take advantage of. 

What have you seen from industry on the program so far?

We’re in  the midst of source selection so I can’t really talk about it. But I will say the program manager is very happy.   

When should we expect an announcement?

We’re trying to work it as hard as we can. I would be surprised if we don’t have announcements by fall. There’s no obvious reason that should get delayed.

When will we start to see demonstrations from ALASA?

Calendar year 2015 is when we’ll start doing launches. We have 12 of them planned and the first two will be used to launch equipment to help monitor the performance of the stage for range safety requirements. We are evaluating various small satellite payload concepts for the remaining launches. 

Do you see ALASA providing an alternative to hosted payload arrangements?

As a hosted payload, you’re dependent on the larger payload for your ride. If they’re delayed, you’re delayed. You’re never first in line. Yet the small satellite market is growing. They’d like to get away from being hosted. We think that’s a niche capability that ALASA can provide. Your existing call-up time for a hosted payload or prime capability is two or three years, and we’re trying to drive that down to 24 hours. We think that helps change the paradigm.

DARPA’s director, Arati Prabhakar, recently said it takes too long to get a mission from concept to orbit. Do you agree and if so, what can be done differently?

Sometimes you have to state the obvious so you get everyone on the same sheet of music and then you can talk about what we can do about it. Things take too long and they cost too much. It’s not just the space domain. There are examples everywhere in the defense community. Schedule is cost. When people are involved, and the longer they are involved, it’s going to cost more money. If you take a long time to do something, it’s likely going to cost you more money than if you can shorten the time schedule up. 

What’s an example of that? 

The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. It’s extremely reliable and requires substantial call up time. It works perfectly. It’s also more expensive than many vendors would like and they’re not sure they need that reliability number. Viewed globally, the price of launch is coming down. Things are getting faster, price points are coming down elsewhere but they’re not necessarily doing that within the department so what can we do about it. I think she was just stating that.

So what can you do about it?

One element is to look at time as a metric instead of just cost and reliability. You have to make a determination, “I can’t afford to have 24 months from inception to launch — I need to get that done in 12.” How do you design systems to do that from scratch? If you aren’t willing to look at those architectures, you’re not likely to get there. With ALASA and XS-1 we’re trying to do that. 

Is there enough money within the Defense Department to test these new ways of conceiving and developing space capabilities?

I know [Pentagon acquisition czar] Frank Kendall talked about the budget challenges departmentwide. DARPA’s job is to take that technical question off the table, build prototypes, show it can be done, and then work with those customers to transition it. We always look at two numbers: cost and affordability. Cost can be the cost of a platform or system. Affordability can be considered aggregate lifecycle cost and how that cycle operates. Space Command, they’re worried about both with all their systems. We don’t want to develop a silver bullet that’s going to sit on the shelf. What’s the point? It may be interesting and technically admirable, but if it just sits on the shelf, it hasn’t done us any good. We also want the program managers to see things from the performer’s side. If the performer can’t afford to make a product or a system, that is a problem. You have to look at both of those. 

How does the Orbit Outlook space-surveillance data integration program fit into the Defense Department’s overall space situational awareness picture? 

Looking into the future, we need to make the space domain awareness architectures real time. They’re not real-time right now. But the changing domain in space, including military and commercial and science capabilities, requires real-time understanding. From a commercial and military perspective, we need to understand that. It’s kind of like the Federal Aviation Administration and air traffic control. Things change all the time so we have to understand and monitor, and that’s the way space is becoming. Orbit Outlook is focused first on the reduced cost and integration of all these data sets and other novel sources. In the future with Orbit Outlook, we’re thinking the next step beyond precision and data set fusion to develop real time space domain awareness architectures. 

How do you envision Orbit Outlook fitting with the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) Mission System upgrade?

Orbit Outlook is our current attempt to integrate various data sources, to show how the sources can be brought together, certified and properly integrated in a coherent framework. We’re going to do what we can to make sure Orbit Outlook’s capabilities are transitioned to JSPOC. The challenge is that the existing JSPOC data sources are very, very carefully scrutinized, however there are many other sources of data globally we can access and integrate. That’s what we’re trying to do with Orbit Outlook. If we can validate that and show it to Space Command, we think they’re going to run with it.

Follow Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN

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...