Air Force SMC seeks to expand development testing

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PASADENA, Calif. – The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) is eager to increase development testing of space technology.

“We have to do fast failure and fast learning,” said Roberta Ewart, SMC chief scientist and chief innovation officer. “That implies development testing has to be increased.”

For decades, SMC has not focused heavily on development testing, leaving much of that work to prime contractors responsible for building satellites, launch vehicles and other space-related systems.

“We are looking at the necessary cultural and internal changes to bring development testing online,” Ewart said May 21 at the Space Tech Expo here.

SMC is beginning to look to small businesses, prime research and development projects and Defense Innovation Unit partners for candidate technologies to test in a new program, tentatively called Advanced In-Space Development Testing.

The Air Force does not have much funding allocated for development testing but is eager to work with other government agencies, including NASA, to pool resources.

“There are some precursor missions we could start with on a small scale because if I were to tell you what I thought the cost of true development testing would probably give you sticker shock,” Ewart said. “To do development testing in space, do it right and do it consistently, probably involves hundreds of millions, maybe even a billion dollars over 15 years.”

Since that level of funding is not currently available, SMC plans to begin development testing with small precursor missions, Ewart said. Those missions may be around the size of various derivatives of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapters, which range from roughly 180 to 400 kilograms.

SMC is eager to test technologies falling in five categories:  autonomy, energetics, materials, electronics and photonics. “The pervasive technologies are the ones likely to get the most attention from me because they don’t get attention from the rest of the community,” Ewart said.

As an example, Ewart points to the Roll Out Solar Array (ROSA), a lightweight flexible blanket array developed by Deployable Space Systems and unfurled on the International Space Station in 2017. Until ROSA, a project backed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, was proven in orbit, prime contractors were not willing to accept the risk of building it into their space platforms. “A solar array alone is never going to get loved,” Ewart said.