The U.S. Air Force operates some of the world’s most advanced machinery but isn’t exactly known for embracing change. Its caution isn’t entirely unjustified: The service tried to adopt commercial-like buying practices in the 1990s and paid the price in the form of runaway cost growth on space programs. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the Air Force has been slow to try new things, including placing its own payloads aboard commercial satellites.
But there are indications that the hosted payload concept is beginning to get some traction. A key factor is the success to date of the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, or CHIRP, experiment, which successfully launched last year aboard a telecommunications satellite owned by fleet operator SES of Luxembourg.
The CHIRP sensor, originally funded as part of a hedging strategy in the Air Force’s troubled effort to develop a new missile warning satellite system, took on a new life of its own as a hosted payload trailblazer. It was indeed a rugged journey on the frontier — CHIRP fell behind schedule, forcing the Air Force and its commercial partners to switch host satellites. Orbital Sciences Corp., the builder of the host satellite, had difficulty with the payload interface, helping to drive up the cost of the mission.
Doug Loverro was instrumental in ushering CHIRP through development and into space aboard the SES 2 communications satellite, where it has observed a number of launches and other phenomena. What’s more, the Air Force’s 2013 budget request, now before Congress, includes $14 million for work on a CHIRP follow-on mission, while the Space and Missile Systems Center is readying a hosted payload contracting vehicle.
It’s way too early to declare victory: A key congressional panel has recommended against funding the CHIRP follow-on work, and the Air Force has no clear plan for integrating hosted payloads into its mission architecture. But CHIRP’s success is sign of progress, and that’s notable, as is Loverro for helping to make it happen.