First Operational ORS Satellite Readied for Payload Integration

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WASHINGTON — The platform for a satellite ordered up by the U.S. military for quick deployment to fulfill an urgent surveillance and reconnaissance need has been built and will soon ship off to have its primary sensor installed, industry and government officials said Feb. 17.

The first nonexperimental satellite built for the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, dubbed ORS-1, is on track to launch late this year, slightly more than two years after Goodrich ISR Systems of Danbury, Conn., was tapped as the satellite’s prime contractor. The U.S. Air Force’s Space Development and Test Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., is managing the program on behalf of the ORS Office.

The ORS-1 satellite platform was built in 16 months by ATK Space Systems of Beltsville, Md., and will be shipped the week of March 1 to the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in nearby Laurel, Md., for environmental testing, ATK spokesman George Torres said. A month later, the platform, or bus, will be shipped to Goodrich, where its electro-optical and infrared instrument will be installed. The satellite will be launched on an Orbital Sciences Corp.-built Minotaur 1 rocket from the Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore.

Goodrich in October 2008 was awarded a contract for ORS-1 that culminated with a critical design review. The value of the contract was not announced. In August 2009, Goodrich was given the go-ahead to build the satellite with a contract to come at a later date. At that time, the Air Force released documents that said the maximum contracting authority for the ORS-1 program was increased from $68 million to $162 million due to certain responsibilities that would be executed by Goodrich instead of the government.

The Air Force, in a Jan. 15 e-mailed response to questions, said the ORS-1 production contract was still under negotiation and would be complete within 30 days. ORS Office spokeswoman Linda Strine was unable to provide an update on the status of the contract by press time.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) was on hand at ATK’s spacecraft facility for a ceremony as the company prepared to pack up the ORS-1 platform for shipping. Mikulski chairs the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee, which controls NASA’s funding, and sits on the defense subcommittee.

“This is indeed a happy occasion for our U.S. military, which will be safer because of this program,” Mikulski said. “It is a happy day for the scientific community, which has shown a new concept of faster, quicker, cheaper can be done. And it’s also a happy day for the taxpayer.

“I truly have been concerned for some time about America’s satellite program. I was worried we don’t know how to build them. I was worried we don’t know how to operate them once they’re in space. … Whether it’s the national technical means that have served the nation well, or the new satellites that are observing the weather right now and predicting new storms, we need our satellites. When we heard about what ORS-1 was doing, I was very excited. The fact now that it was ready for delivery on time and on budget, this is wonderful.”

ORS-1 is the first operational satellite developed under the ORS concept, whereby space capabilities are built and deployed quickly in response to emerging military needs. The ORS-1 mission development schedule was aggressive from the start, but the industry team so far has been able to stick to it, Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space, said at the event.

“The spacecraft, when delivered to orbit, will save American lives,” Payton said. “That is the most important part of the entire ORS project. My hat’s off to the entire ATK and Goodrich team that put this program together. I don’t get the chance to say this very often: This is the rare space program that is on schedule and on cost.”

The ORS Office was established in 2006, and all of its previous satellite projects have been demonstrations. Most recently the office was involved with the TacSat-3 satellite that was built by the Air Force Research Laboratory. TacSat-3 was launched in May 2009 and is in the midst of a year-long military utility assessment of hyperspectral imaging technologies. The next satellite in the series, TacSat-4, built by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, is scheduled to launch in August.

The ORS Office takes direction from U.S. Strategic Command, for which it has twice developed solutions to urgent military needs by using existing space assets in different ways. ORS-1 was conceived in 2008 in response to Strategic Command’s third urgent need, an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability for U.S. Central Command, which is leading operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The ORS-1 satellite platform is a more sophisticated version of the bus ATK developed for TacSat-3. ATK spent about $34 million developing the ORS-1 bus, which includes a propulsion module that was not a part of the TacSat-3 design, Tom Wilson, ATK’s vice president and general manager for spacecraft systems and services, said in an interview. With much of the nonrecurring engineering costs behind it, the company has discussed with the Air Force the possibility of building additional copies of the bus, which would cost around $20 million apiece, for various missions, he said.

Meanwhile, Goodrich is still building the satellite’s payload, Charles Cox, the company’s director of special projects, said in an e-mail. “We have aligned several of the optics into the telescope structure,” he said.

ORS-1’s main sensor is a U2 spy plane camera that is being adapted for orbital operations.