Carlson Cites Launch, Tech Funding as Issues for NRO

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SAN ANTONIO — Two of the biggest concerns today at the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) are a steep decline in funding for science and technology development projects and the state of the U.S. space launch industry, the office’s director said Oct. 21.

Change is required to fix the policies that have left the United States with a single heavy-lift launch provider and only two sites from which to launch satellites that are critical to national security, NRO Director Bruce Carlson said at the Geoint 2009 Symposium here. Part of the solution is more NASA involvement in launch efforts, he said.

Denver-based United Launch Alliance, a Lockheed Martin-Boeing partnership, provides space launches to the U.S. government, primarily with its Atlas 5 and Delta 4 families of rockets. The Atlas 5 is also available commercially, but used only occasionally for that purpose. The U.S. policy of maintaining two separate rocket fleets was intended to ensure access to space in case one was grounded, but technical troubles coupled with late-arriving payloads kept both rockets grounded for most of 2008.

“The business of launch and the state of launch is not very good,” Carlson said. “Many of you out there have packages ready to go. That’s a dickens of a way to have a space program. You wouldn’t go to a rental car place if it had people standing around waiting to rent a car.”

The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 each have a single launch pad at both of the two main U.S. launch ranges: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.; and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Because these pads must be booked well in advance of a scheduled launch date, ULA has struggled to keep things moving amid congestion that has been complicated by late-arriving payloads. ULA said earlier this year that it was studying options for relieving that congestion including building a second processing facility at Cape Canaveral for the Atlas 5, the busier of the company’s two main vehicle families.

ULA spokeswoman Julie Andrews said the company has performed 13 launches so far this year — six of the older Delta 2 rocket being phased out by the Air Force — with three more scheduled. She could not provide further comment.

Carlson also said the NRO’s budget for science and technology programs has shrunk by 50 percent during the last five years.

“That is the seed corn for the future,” he said. “That’s what keeps our young scientists and engineers excited to come to work every day to work on these kinds of projects.

“We’re not doing nearly enough. Shame on us. Shame on us for forfeiting our future in science and technology,” Carlson said.

NRO officials were scheduled to meet Oct. 26 with the U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and his executive committee to argue for more science and technology funding in the 2011 budget request, Carlson said.

Meanwhile, the NRO’s charter is in the process of being rewritten for the first time since 1964, Carlson said. The agencies that came together to form the NRO in its early days no longer exist in their same forms, and the requirements and funding modalities for the office are different today as well.

“It’s time for a new charter,” Carlson said. “The need for overhead intelligence is significantly different than it was five, 10 or 15 years ago. The workforce is remarkably different than it was even five years ago.”

The director of national intelligence and the secretary of defense have come to agreement on some of the principles that will inform the new charter, which is expected to be finalized sometime around the end of the year, he said. The new charter will address the NRO’s requirements process, milestone decision authority for satellite intelligence-collection programs and control of the office’s personnel. One element Carlson will advocate is giving the director of the NRO some say in the requirements process, which the position does not currently have. The requirements for the NRO’s satellites are ultimately determined by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, which is made up of senior officers from the military services.

“In the past, the requirements process has forced us in the development and acquisition business to commit to things that were pricey, took a long time and were very difficult. That equates to a management capacity for a program manager that is very limited. Somebody has to stand up and say, ‘we don’t think we can do that.’ It’s not saying ‘no,’ it’s advising the requirements process. Sometimes we get requirements that are incredibly difficult to satisfy in our cost and schedule constraints.”