Lawmakers Question Proposed Cancellation of Space Test Program, ORS

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s proposal to cancel a decades-old program that finds rides to orbit for promising space technologies was a product of the final deliberations on the Pentagon’s 2013 budget request and was not widely coordinated with the affected government organizations, a top service official told lawmakers March 8.

Testifying before skeptical members of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, Air Force Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, defended the planned cancellation of the long-running Space Test Program (STP) as well as the newer Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program. He said the moves are necessary as part of the Air Force contribution to the $487 billion in planned reductions in defense spending over the next decade mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) characterized the cancellations as “penny-wise and pound-foolish” considering the minimal investment involved. He said it does not make sense to try and lower costs by canceling the programs that were specifically established to find ways to save money.

Heinrich asked Shelton whether the proposed STP cancellation had been coordinated with other U.S. government laboratories and organizations that have benefited from the program.

“I think the coordination that maybe we would have wanted to occur did not occur,” Shelton said. “And the reason for that was as we got to the final balancing at the end of the president’s budget exercise we flat just didn’t have the time, plus there was a lot of closed door sessions that finalized that submission. That coordination is going on now. We are determining how we will spread the work. We are determining how we will gain the same sorts of advantages we got from the Space Test Program, albeit by other organizations.”

Shelton said a lot of space-related research is taking place in the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, in the Naval Research Laboratory and within the Army. The STP has been used for decades to match high-priority space experiments with rides to orbit, usually as piggyback payloads but occasionally aboard dedicated rockets. These payloads are prioritized each year by the Pentagon’s Space Experiments Review Board.

Shelton said Air Force officials felt the risk in canceling the STP was acceptable, adding that the AFRL will spend $370 million this year on space-related research. He also said concepts developed by the ORS Office, created in 2007 to develop quick-reaction space capabilities in response to emerging needs, will find their way into other programs.

Lawmakers did not seem convinced. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee, said that he is not satisfied with the justification provided for closing the ORS Office and canceling STP. The ORS Office, he said, responded to urgent military requirements and promised to shorten the lengthy space acquisition cycle. 

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, noted that the STP program was critical to the development of the Air Force’s now-ubiquitous GPS satellite-based positioning, navigation and timing system.

The Air Force’s 2013 request calls for a $10 million allocation for STP, funding that would be used to close out the program, according to budget justification documents. The program received $44 million in 2011 and $47 million in 2012. STP has flown hundreds of experiments since 1965, nurturing Defense Department expertise in mission design, spacecraft bus acquisition, payload integration and on-orbit operations, according to an Air Force fact sheet.

Funding for the planned Space Test Program Satellite-2 is being transferred to the Advanced Spacecraft Technology research account, budget documents show. The Air Force is requesting $65 million for Advanced Spacecraft Technology in 2013, a $9 million drop from this year, according to budget documents.

The Air Force’s latest budget request does not include any funding for the ORS Office. Congress appropriated $110 million for ORS programs in 2012.

“The Space Development and Test division that is there continues to work ORS concepts on behalf of all of Space and Missile Systems Center, which is headquartered in Los Angeles,” Shelton said. “That linkage, which has always been tight, will continue. It is just that we won’t have a dedicated office.”