U.S. Air Force Hosted Payload Program Missing One Thing: Military Users

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WASHINGTON — A new U.S. Air Force contracting vehicle for hosting government payloads on commercial satellites likely will be used exclusively for civilian scientific missions for three to five years, a service official said Oct. 15.

The Defense Department’s slowness to utilize its own contracting vehicle, known as Hosted Payload Solutions, or HoPS, is a source of frustration among some in industry who initially had high hopes for the program.

Through HoPS, the Air Force has created a contracting vehicle to standardize the processes and interfaces for placing dedicated military capabilities aboard commercial satellites. In June, the service awarded contracts to 14 space companies, effectively qualifying them to provide certain services and hardware in support of hosted payload missions.

As expected, NASA is the inaugural user of the HoPS contracting vehicle. In July, the Air Force, acting on NASA’s behalf, awarded three commercial telecommunications satellite makers contracts to design accommodations for an atmospheric sensor, known as Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution, or TEMPO.

Jim Simpson, vice president of business development for Boeing Network and Space Systems of El Segundo, California, said it is “disappointing” that the Air Force has not made hosted payloads part of its routine approach to fielding space capabilities.

“I’m impatient,” Simpson said here during the Hosted Payload Summit organized by Access Intelligence. “It just needs to happen quicker.”

Lt. Col. Mark Brykowytch, former chief of the hosted payload office at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, which manages the HoPS contract, said he could not offer a specific timetable for when the service would use it for a Defense Department mission. But he said three to five years was a reasonable expectation.

One reason for the long wait is uncertainty about the Air Force’s future satellite architecture, panelists said. With the exception of a new-generation weather satellite system, all of the Air Force’s major constellations are under contract, with most of those in the midst of deployment.

Facing budget pressures and an evolving threat environment that some defense officials believe requires different constellation architectures, possibly incorporating hosted payloads, the service is conducting multiple studies to determine what comes next. None of the studies is expected to be completed before the end of this year, however, meaning their results likely cannot be factored in to the Defense Department’s 2016 budget plans.

But panelists repeatedly said during the conference that Air Force program managers still have yet to fully embrace the idea that Defense Department missions can stray from the status quo and are viable hosted payload candidates.

“We brought them the vehicle,” Brykowytch said. “It should be much more enticing.”

Industry executives questioned whether Air Force space program managers have any incentive to leverage hosted payloads. While hosted payloads are a low-cost way of augmenting or plugging gaps in existing capabilities, they still introduce new expenditures and risks.

“We need people who are champions to push projects toward hosted payloads,” said Craig Weston, president and chief executive of Vivisat, a joint venture of ATK Aerospace and U.S. Space LLC that aims to service satellites in orbit.

Industry officials said the Air Force has much to gain by incorporating hosted payloads into its space portfolio sooner rather than later. Chuck Cynamon, vice president of U.S. government business development for satellite maker Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, California, said hosted payloads could provide a “try-before-you-buy” option, allowing the Air Force to test new technologies and architectures before making expensive long-term decisions.

Myland Pride, director of legislative and government affairs at Intelsat General Corp. of Bethesda, Maryland, said industry must continue to press policymakers to include hosted payloads in their future architecture plans. Pride also suggested the U.S. intelligence community embrace hosted payloads, which he said would be hard for adversaries to locate if secretly deployed in large numbers on commercial satellites platforms. Currently most dedicated intelligence satellites, while classified, can be located and tracked after launch.