COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The successful launch of a U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite April 14 capped an eight-month campaign involving six launches, including one in January that the agency’s top official said narrowed a projected nine-month gap in a key capability to 33 days.

In the most recent mission, the classified NRO L-38 satellite was successfully carried to orbit by an Atlas 5 rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., according to an April 14 NRO press release. The NRO will conduct its next launch in 2012.

Some of the NRO’s legacy satellite systems have been on orbit for more than 20 years, and the office in recent years has struggled with program failures and cancellations. The recent torrent of successful launches is proof that the organization has not “lost its recipe” for building, launching and operating the nation’s spy satellites, NRO Director Bruce Carlson said April 14 at the National Space Symposium here.

“I will tell you this particular campaign has closed a couple of gaps,” he said. “One of them was estimated to be nine months long and because of some brilliant work on the tail end of a dying satellite, all done on the ground, and the hard work that was done on the launch end, we shortened that predicted nine-month gap to 33 days.”

Carlson was referring to January’s launch of NRO L-49, which was the first of a Delta 4 Heavy rocket from the West Coast. The NRO put the satellite under contract in 2005 and was able to complete development two years earlier and for $2 billion less than originally estimated, Carlson said.

“The first cost estimate by a joint [Office of the Secretary of Defense] and intelligence community cost group showed that it would cost X amount of dollars and take seven years,” Carlson said. “The organization said, ‘No, we’ve got to do it in five, and we’ll take $2 billion off that.’ That’s exactly what they did.”

Specific budgets for NRO programs are classified.

The satellite “started producing faster than any of those who were around at the time thought it would to help fill that critical gap I talked about. The next one in that series is coming along,” he said.

Carlson did not identify the capability the L-49 mission delivers. But the NRO in 2005 started building two new electro-optical imaging satellites after another high-profile effort was canceled.

Boeing Defense, Space & Security of St. Louis was building optical and radar satellites for the NRO’s so-called Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), but after years of delays and billions of dollars spent, the agency canceled the optical portion of that program. At the same time, the NRO tapped Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems — the longtime incumbent that was unseated by Boeing in the FIA competition — to build two optical satellites based on legacy technology and hardware.

Meanwhile, Congress is still debating a new optical satellite imaging plan proposed in 2009 by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. Under what is known informally as the two-plus-two plan, the NRO would contract with Lockheed Martin to build two multibillion-dollar imaging satellites with 2.4-meter apertures, while the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency would purchase the imagery equivalent of two 1.1-meter-aperture satellites from U.S. commercial imagery firms.

The NRO is making progress to reduce risk on the Next Generation Optical system and would deliver the capability on time and on schedule, Carlson said.

“We have established a number of milestones and we’re making those milestones,” he said. “We’re closing the technology gaps that will be required to put that satellite into orbit on time or even ahead of on time.

“Not only are we reducing the risks as we go along, we’re bringing the costs down. That’s the way you develop satellites.”



Carlson Cites Launch, Tech Funding as Issues for NRO