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New Mexico Wants New Operationally Responsive Space Program Office

Congress’ desire for a new program office that will acquire small satellites — and get them launched on short notice — has spurred a vigorous behind-the-scenes debate about the best place to locate it.

Several members of the New Mexico congressional delegation want the new Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program office to be established at Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque. However, other ORS advocates on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon oppose placing it in New Mexico, which already hosts a similar office — though one with a somewhat broader mandate — because they said that office has been ineffective.

The Air Force established a Joint Warfighting Space program office at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico in 2005 that was intended to manage work on responsive space efforts as well as vehicles that operate in the near space realm up to 31 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.

However, some congressional aides have said in interviews with Space News that the Joint Warfighting Space program office has accomplished very little because it lacks the connection to military operators, the budget authority and the clout to effectively oversee responsive space.

The House and Senate versions of the 2007 Defense Authorization Act, which passed May 11 and June 22 respectively, both included language establishing a new program office for ORS that is intended to answer those concerns. Neither bill included near space systems on the list of responsibilities for the new office.

Details about how the office should be structured will be worked out later this summer when a House-Senate conference committee meets to resolve differences in the two bills, sources said.

Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) along with Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) wrote a letter dated May 2 to Air Force Undersecretary Ron Sega recommending the new program office be established at Kirtland’s Phillips Technology Institute, and asked to meet with Sega on the matter.

“Current operations in New Mexico, including work done at the Air Force Research Lab, local universities, and the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, provide a world-class technology base in the state for small satellite capability for military, civilian, and commercial applications,” the members wrote. “This is an important mission and locating the [office] at Kirtland Air Force Base would provide excellent opportunities to draw upon resident technology and expertise.”

Maria Najera, a spokeswoman for Bingaman, said the meeting has not yet taken place, but that Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, sent the senator a letter on June 9 indicating that it was too early to make a selection, but that Kirtland Air Force Base will be considered as a potential location for the ORS office.

“Sen. Bingaman will continue to monitor the situation and will continue to press for Kirtland to be selected,” Najera said.

Matthew Letourneau, a spokesman for Domenici and Joel Hannahs, a spokesman for Wilson, did not return phone calls requesting comment.

However, some Pentagon and congressional sources said the significant space work that takes place today at Kirtland Air Force Base is a reason not to place the new office there. The ORS effort, they said, is intended to yield smaller, less expensive satellites and rockets than typically developed by the military today, and needs a location separate from the existing traditional space culture.

That same rationale is cited as a reason for also keeping the office away from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, which oversees the development of most military satellites, nearly all of which are plagued with cost and schedule problems, the sources said. Placing the office at Kirtland Air Force Base could also isolate it from Army and Navy personnel who will likely be the heaviest users of the small satellites, a congressional aide said.

As an alternative, some ORS proponents would like to put the new office in the Washington area to avoid those issues and to keep it closer to its advocates in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, the sources said.

Another possibility is Omaha, Neb., site of U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for space operations, the sources said. Strategic Command has been a major advocate for ORS, and can effectively bring together potential users from the different services, the sources said.

Nevertheless, there is support beyond the New Mexico delegation for placing the new office at Kirtland, according to one congressional aide who said that the innovative work taking place at Kirtland would only help the ORS effort.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s space vehicles directorate at Kirtland, as well as the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Detachment 12, which is also located at the base, both have significant experience with small satellites that would provide synergy for the ORS effort, the aide said. Those organizations also have helped to establish a skilled local work force that may not be present in Washington or Omaha, the aide said.