Despite Uncertain Future, ORS Office Has Missions To Work On

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department’s quick-reaction space development office has a full plate of activities this year, including a possible launch this fall from Hawaii, even as it continues to be marked for closure.

The Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, established at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., in 2007 to quickly develop low-cost space capabilities in response to emerging military needs, has faced a near-continuous budget struggle in recent years. The U.S. Air Force has been seeking to close the office and fold its activities into its main space procurement shop in Los Angeles, but has been stymied to date by Congress.

One ORS Office supporter, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), last year put a hold on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Deborah Lee James as Air Force secretary pending a pledge by the service to keep the Kirtland office open through at least the remainder of 2014. The Air Force agreed, and James has since been confirmed.

In its budget request for fiscal year 2015, the Air Force again zeroed out the budget for the ORS Office. Nonetheless, the office could soon begin work on at least one of two proposed satellites using funds that were appropriated by Congress in prior years but never spent.

One of the satellites, ORS-2, would carry a radar sensor for ground reconnaissance; the other, ORS-5, would be used for space surveillance.

Meanwhile, the launch of the ORS-4 mission is scheduled for this fall aboard a new, rail-launched rocket.

Against the Air Force’s stated desire to shutter the ORS Office, Congress appropriated $105 million and $10 million for its activities in 2013 and 2014, respectively. According to congressional sources, $60 million of the 2013 funding has not been spent and is available for mission development this year.

The specific plans for the 2013 funding are murky, however. Congressional authorizers directed that it be spent on an effort to develop a low-cost weather satellite following the cancellation of the Defense Weather Satellite System, a proposed program that never got any traction. But a congressional source said the $60 million of the 2013 funding went unspent due to Air Force’s indecision about whether to fly the radar sensor on ORS-2 or find an alternative payload.

ORS-2 is expected to take 30 months to build, with a 2017 launch date, sources said.

Further muddying the waters is what appears to be high-level support for an ORS-5 mission, which was voiced by Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, just weeks after the service submitted a 2015 budget request that contained no funds for the ORS Office.

Shelton told lawmakers April 3 that ORS-5 would demonstrate technologies to be used in a follow-on to the current Space Based Space Surveillance satellite, which keeps tabs on objects in geostationary orbit. The Air Force’s 2015 budget request describes the ORS-5 mission as addressing “rapidly evolving threats and [to] serve as a pathfinder in this vital mission area.”

The Air Force intends to draw on prior-year appropriations to fund the ORS-5 mission, Shelton said.

“I am very encouraged that Air Force leadership has agreed to move forward with a new mission for Operationally Responsive Space,” Heinrich said in an email to SpaceNews. “I strongly believe in both the strategic and fiscal value of ORS.  Quickly designing, building, and launching satellites at a fraction of the cost of traditional, multi-billion dollar satellites makes perfect sense when considering our nation’s debt and the increasingly competitive environment of outer space.”

Meanwhile, the launch of ORS-4, which will carry the Hyperspectral Imaging Aeronautical Kinematic Analysis satellite and 13 cubesats, is scheduled to launch in November 2014, said Jeff Welsh, ORS-4 mission manager. ORS-4 will demonstrate a new small-satellite launcher and will be the first space mission launched from Hawaii — specifically the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.

The launch, aboard the spin-stabilized, rail-launched Super Strypi rocket, was originally scheduled for October 2013.