ORS-1. Credit: Orbital ATK

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has awarded United Technologies Corp. Aerospace Systems of Danbury, Connecticut, a $13.5 million contract for continued support for a one-of-a-kind tactical surveillance satellite, according to an Oct. 8 notice posted to the Federal Business Opportunities website.

The Operationally Responsive Space (ORS)-1 satellite, which launched in 2011, circles the globe every 90 minutes and provides visible and infrared imagery to U.S. forces operating in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

The satellite provides “mission support” for various combatant commanders. In 2013, for example, the satellite provided images for U.S. Central Command when a CH-53 helicopter crashed in a remote location.

Under the sole-source contract, which began Sept. 30 and could run through Dec. 31, 2016, if all options are exercised, United Technologies will continue to provide day-to-day operation, support and image processing for the satellite.

The Air Force said it expects this to be the final sustainment contract for ORS-1 as the satellite is expected to reach its end of life in December 2016, the announcement said.

Boeing Defense, Space and Security and the Space Dynamics Laboratory were among the organizations interested in the contract, Air Force documents said.

Air Force Pressured To Request ORS Funding 

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) has asked the secretary of the Air Force to ensure the Defense Department’s 2016 budget request — due to Congress in February — includes funding for the ORS enterprise, a rapid-response military space development office the Air Force has tried without success to close for three years running.

In an Oct. 1 letter to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, Heinrich said the quick turnaround the ORS Office has achieved on relatively low-cost satellite projects makes “perfect sense” in an era of constrained budgets.

“Given that the Air Force now embraces ORS concepts and announced it will maintain both the office and the mission, it is critical that funding for ORS be included in the fiscal year 2016 Air Force budget request,” the letter said. “An official budget request will reflect the Air Force’s support for continued operations of the office and reinforce the Department of Defense’s entity dedicated to responsive space capabilities.”

The ORS Office, established at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, in 2007 to quickly develop low-cost space capabilities in response to emerging military needs, has experienced 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, only to be stymied by Congress.

The Air Force again zeroed out the budget for the ORS Office when the service sent its 2015 budget request to Congress earlier this year; lawmakers supportive of the program tucked between $20 million and $30 million into defense spending measures that have since been shelved until after next month’s congressional elections. The Air Force, like the rest of the federal government, has been operating since the new fiscal year started Oct. 1 under a stopgap measure that holds spending to 2014 levels until December.

The ORS Office, meanwhile, is working on several space programs for the Air Force including ORS-2, a satellite that would carry a radar sensor for ground reconnaissance; ORS-4, an experimental low-cost launch system for small satellites expected to launch in January; and ORS-5, a technology pathfinder for a follow-on to the current Space Based Space Surveillance satellite.

The Air Force recently asked Congress for permission to redirect $25 million in 2014 funds to help pay for the ORS-5 launch.

The Air Force will also need 2016 funding for ORS-5, which tentatively is slated for a 2017 launch.

Heinrich has been a vocal advocate for the ORS Office, wielding his clout in 2013 to block James from becoming Air Force secretary until the service pledged to keep the Kirtland office open through at least the remainder of 2014. The Air Force agreed, Heinrich removed his hold and James was confirmed.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.