The Air Force Research Laboratory supported the 2017 test of Deployable Space Systems' Roll Out Solar Array on the International Space System. Credit: NASA

The U.S. Air Force late last month identified 23 units performing a broad range of space training, intelligence, research and operations that are being transferred to the Space Force.

Unlike the units immediately moved over to the Space Force when the new military service was formally established in December, the 23 units identified March 31 were not part of the since-dissolved Air Force Space Command.

Significantly, five of the units being folded into the Space Force currently belong to the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). These include two research and development facilities at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio; the rocket propulsion division at Edwards Air Force Base, California; the electro-optical division in Maui, Hawaii; and the Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate is an especially notable addition to the Space Force. The directorate, which has more than 800 employees and a nearly $550 million budget, performs some of the military’s most cutting-edge space experiments and has built strong ties to the space industry.

The directorate’s leader, Col. Eric Felt, told SpaceNews last month that the standup of the Space Force has shined a light on the importance of the space domain and the need to maintain a technological advantage.

“Our mission is to keep the ‘big idea’ pipeline for space full so when operators need new capabilities, ideally, we will have already performed the needed technology work to make sure those capabilities are ready to be fielded,” Felt said.

The directorate has earned praise from the Air Force’s top leadership for an experimental navigation satellite it is developing with L3Harris that could pave the way for the military’s next generation of positioning, navigation and timing satellites.

The Navigation Technology Satellite-3 (NTS-3) experiment, scheduled to launch in 2022, was last year named one of Air Force’s “vanguard” programs, Felt said. “That means the Air Force is committed to developing and transitioning this technology.”

An AFRL experimental spacecraft launched in 2018, called Eagle, demonstrated a bus design to allow a large rocket to carry six small satellites as a secondary payload. The bus design proved successful and the Space and Missile Systems Center is now using it for operational satellites, Felt said.

One of the more ambitious projects in the works is a space-based solar power demonstration, a longstanding concept for capturing solar energy in space, converting it to radiofrequency energy and beaming it to the ground to where it’s needed, said Felt. “You could beam power from space on demand to forces in the field, to airplanes, to other satellites or ground vehicles.”

Felt called the solar energy project an example of the “big idea pipeline.” It’s an attempt to prove basic phenomenology that will take many years to mature “but [could be] hugely game changing,” Felt said.

In about 18 months, the directorate will launch a small satellite with a Link 16 transponder to demonstrate the use of the Link 16 data link (typically installed on aircraft and ground systems) in space.

“If you have a satellite link, you can use Link 16 beyond line of sight,” said Felt. “That’s a hugely enabling capability,” he added. “If the experiment works out we would consider hosting that payload on one of the commercial [low Earth orbit] megaconstellations, which would give us worldwide ubiquitous Link 16 capability.”

The leaders of the Space Force have insisted that technological innovation that can be quickly adapted into military programs is central to staying ahead of adversaries. Projects like those developed by AFRL could get more attention and resources under the Space Force.

Regardless of the larger organization it reports to, the Space Vehicles Directorate will remain focused on the “art of the possible,” said Felt. Going forward, “I do see positive things coming from the standup of the Space Force.”

Sandra Erwin

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.

“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the April 13, 2020 issue.

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...