Making a Difference | U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.)

by

Things were looking up for the U.S. Defense Department’s tiny Operationally Responsive Space Office at the beginning of 2013.

A little less than a year earlier, after a period of mixed messages about what the future held in store for the joint program, the Air Force formally proposed shuttering the ORS Office at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Congress fought the closure, using the National Defense Authorization Act that President Barack Obama signed into law Jan. 2, 2013, to direct the Air Force to keep the ORS Office open. 

The victory was short-lived. When the Air Force sent Congress its 2014 budget request a few months later, the service again proposed terminating the program. By last September, ORS personnel began receiving layoff notices. 

That was too much for New Mexico’s freshman senator.

Martin Heinrich — who assumed office just one day after Obama signed the 2013 defense authorization bill into law — put a hold on the president’s nomination of Deborah Lee James as secretary of the Air Force until he got the answers he wanted to questions about the ORS cuts.

On Sept. 27, the Air Force wrote Heinrich to say the service had committed to keeping the ORS Office open at Kirtland with its full 33-person staff at least through 2014. The Air Force subsequently has committed funding for ORS-5, a small satellite launching as soon as 2017 to act as a pathfinder for technologies to be used in a follow-on to the current Space Based Space Surveillance system satellite. 

Heinrich’s maneuver helped save a scrappy program the Air Force and the Pentagon established in 2007 to develop and field low-cost military satellites quickly in response to emerging needs.

The ORS program served the Pentagon as the “red team,” challenging the buying practices and underlying conventional wisdom of the Space and Missile Systems Center, the Air Force’s main space acquisition shop. That’s a laudable mission, well worth its relatively minor annual budget.