BEDFORD, Mass. — Politically speaking, the Space Development Agency got off to a rocky start, with several members of Congress questioning the need for a new space organization that might duplicate the work that others are already doing.

Congressional committees now appear to be warming up to the SDA, the agency’s director Fred Kennedy said June 11 in a keynote speech at a space technology and policy conference held at the MITRE campus.

“I do believe that we’re getting good support from the committees,” said Kennedy. “I may not have said this a few months ago.”

The SDA was established in March 2019 to accelerate the acquisition of space systems partly by using commercially developed technology.

But while Congress appears more receptive to the SDA, lawmakers still have many questions about what the agency will do, Kennedy said. “What I’m seeing from the committees is a lot of skepticism,” he said. “They should be skeptical.”

Proof that more lawmakers are coming around to the SDA is language in draft legislation for the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. The House Armed Services Committee’s strategic force subcommittee included provisions directing the SDA to design navigation satellite receivers that are compatible with those used by NATO and Japan, and requires the agency to procure commercial space situational awareness services.

Kennedy called this a strong indicator that Congress is beginning to understand the potential value of the SDA. “They’ve assigned tasks. That’s a good sign,” he said. “That means they recognize the need for something like an SDA and they’re trying to figure out what to make it go do.”

Although Congress has yet to approve a budget for the SDA, Kennedy said it’s helpful to start a discussion on the agency’s future projects. “Absolutely let’s work to figure out what the right tasks are,” he said. “The bottom line is that I’m not dissatisfied with what I’m seeing on the Hill. Every discussion I’ve had with staff and members has been very fruitful. They ask very good questions.”

The Pentagon requested $149.8 million for the SDA in fiscal year 2020. The funding would pay for 50 personnel, of which 30 would be new civilian positions and 20 would be military personnel transferring from existing positions.

“I was told rather directly by the acting secretary of defense that the job of the SDA director is to define and monitor the next-generation space architecture,” Kennedy said. “That sounds fairly comprehensive.”

One of the concerns raised by lawmakers is the SDA duplicating what other organizations in the Air Force do, but Kennedy said there is enough work for everybody. “Nobody said I have to build it all. I have to define and monitor,” he said. “There is no reason why the Army couldn’t come in and build a chunk of the architecture if they are so inclined with their own money, no reason why the Air Force or the Navy couldn’t do the same. No reason why the National Reconnaissance Office and ourselves couldn’t have a fruitful discussion … There’s all sorts of interesting places for us to play.”

The first project for the agency will be to draw up a plan to build a constellation of low-cost satellites in low Earth orbit, what the Pentagon calls a “proliferated LEO” architecture.

The idea is to show whether a proliferated LEO system can be deployed to do the same functions at less cost than current satellites in higher orbits. Kennedy believes this can be done but only if DoD buys commercially available hardware rather than develop customized systems. DoD should be able to acquire buses and payloads at “single digit million” prices, compared to hundreds of millions of dollars that DoD now pays for large purpose-built satellites.

With constellations that are cheaper and faster to deploy, the military’s space systems would be less vulnerable because they could more easily be replenished if adversaries took down satellites, Kennedy said. Current satellites, by contrast, are “exquisite” and would take years to replace if they were attacked.

“We don’t want space to become the Achilles’ heel of our national security,” Kennedy said. “That’s where we might be headed because of the time and the money it takes to develop capabilities … We’re not very good at responding to rapidly evolving threats.”

At SDA “we want to latch on to commercial,” said Kennedy. “Do it now, take advantage of the opportunity, see if it works … If it doesn’t we try something else.” If satellites cost single-digit missions, he said, there would be more tolerance for failure.

So far the private space industry is in “reasonable alignment with what we want to build,” said Kennedy. The LEO broadband constellations that are being built are “very valuable,” he said. “I can’t put a next-generation space architecture without having that. Whether they build it for us or whether we build it based on their best practices, it doesn’t really matter. We’re going to use that right out of the gate.”

The space internet would be the SDA’s “data transport layer,” a mesh network that DoD would use to communicate globally. To next step would be to develop LEO constellation for other missions like missile tracking and surveillance. “I know roughly the kinds of payloads I want,” Kennedy said. “I can tell you right now I don’t want exquisite payloads. I want mass producible payloads.”

More work needed

William LaPlante, senior vice president of MITRE National Security Sector, said a move to proliferated LEO systems requires a culture change in DoD.

“We’ve got an influx of money. We’ve got an influx of attention. Let’s make the most of it,” said LaPlante, who was the Air Force’s top acquisition executive during the Obama administration. MITRE is a federally funded research and development organization that advises the Air Force and the intelligence community.

The SDA says it will take advantage of hot production lines, but to do that, DoD has to decide what spacecraft it wants and what it will do with them, said LaPlante, noting that these are still unanswered questions.

“That’s what we need to do, get on with the designs. We have to decide what to do in space,” he said.

The primary missions the military does in space are positioning, navigation and timing; missile warning; missile defense; communications; and surveillance. “We have to decide, out of those five missions, are we going to have different architectures?” LaPlante asked. “Which missions are you going to do? It’s not easy to figure that out, and I’d like to remind people about that,” he said. This is a key question because in the past DoD has piled on multiple functions on satellites, which drives up their cost. “We tend to go with the Swiss army knife approach and end up with these massive systems,” said LaPlante.

If the SDA is successful at developing proliferated LEO systems that can do what DoD needs, the implications would be far reaching, LaPlante said. The use of small low-cost satellites, for instance, would make DoD less dependent on expensive launch vehicles.

“We still have only two providers” that can launch national security satellites, LaPlante said. “If we go to these other constellations, you can get rid of the tyranny of only having two providers. You might not even have to launch every satellite out of the Cape or Vandenberg,” he said referring to the Air Force’s major launch sites at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

“If we’re willing to build satellites that are smaller, that have hot production lines, we may have more relaxed certification requirements for launch vehicles,” said LaPlante. “If we change what we’re launching, then we’re not dependent on those large payloads or large launch vehicles,” he said. “I’ve had this discussion with Mike Griffin [the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering],” said LaPlante. “If we had gone to these proliferated constellations 10 or 15 years ago we’d have a very different situation with space launch. That is why we’re trying to move away from the Battlestar Galactica.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...