Editorial: Killing the Space Test Program Could Prove Costly in Long Run

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One of the more distressing proposals in the U.S. Defense Department’s budget request for 2013 is the cancellation of a program that since 1965 has been used to match promising space technologies and experiments with rides to orbit.

The venerable Space Test Program, or STP, is credited with enabling some of the most important space technology breakthroughs, including GPS, but more routinely provides a means to demonstrate incremental improvements to satellite components such as batteries and cooling systems. The program also serves as a launch-services broker of sorts for secondary payloads.

Despite its proven value over the years and relatively low cost — its 2012 budget is $47 million — STP was deemed expendable by Pentagon planners who are coping with the toughest fiscal environment in recent memory. While the overall Defense Department request protects the big satellite programs that provide must-have capabilities such as missile warning and communications, those that do not provide immediate benefits are being sacrificed. These include STP and Operationally Responsive Space, which was making headway in demonstrating a new paradigm for satellite development and operations.

Pentagon officials have defended the proposed cancellations as necessary contributions to defense spending reductions mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and say space-related research and experimentation will continue under other funding accounts.

But these accounts are shrinking as well: For example, the U.S. Air Force’s request next year for Advanced Spacecraft Technology, the account to which a satellite development program called STP-2 is being transferred, is $65 million, compared with $74 million in 2012. Moreover, Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told lawmakers that the STP cancellation was a last-minute decision that was not fully coordinated among the affected Defense Department organizations.

There appears to be little near-term risk to canceling STP because the program’s primary purpose is to nurture technologies and capabilities that are several years away from having any real operational impact. There also is some truth to the assertion that space technology demonstrations will continue to be funded, but on a program-by-program basis.

But what’s lost in rationalizing STP’s sacrifice is there will inevitably be fewer opportunities for young or aspiring engineers to get their hands dirty working with space hardware. Equally important, it is unclear how the most promising technologies will distinguish themselves from others vying for what always will be a finite number of flight opportunities. STP flight demonstrations must pass muster with the Pentagon’s Space Experiments Review Board, which meets annually to determine which get top priority. Having an effective champion in the Pentagon or in Congress obviously is a plus for any program, but the political process is not known for its technical and scientific rigor.

It certainly can be argued that space programs fared better than many others in the Air Force’s 2013 budget request, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what’s missing from the planning horizon: research and development activities that advance the state of the art in space technology while keeping some of the industry’s brightest minds engaged.

STP is no substitute for a major satellite or rocket development effort in that regard, but it has long been a repository within the Air Force of expertise in spacecraft design, acquisition and operations. That resource could very well disappear in the future.

Compounding the unfortunate timing of the Pentagon’s proposal is that it comes just as an alternative and potentially cost-saving way of doing business in space, the placement of government payloads on commercial satellites, is beginning to prove itself. The STP account would be an ideal funding source for hosted payload activities, which currently have no home in the Pentagon’s budget.

These are of course extremely challenging, perhaps unprecedented, fiscal times and it was inevitable that space was going to take a hit along with most other areas of U.S. military spending. But targeting the STP account is one of those decisions that appear to be, as one U.S. lawmaker so aptly put it during a recent hearing, penny wise and pound foolish.