ORS-1 Satellite Breezes Through Environmental Testing

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The first operational satellite developed by the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office is ready to launch as early as May after completing environmental testing with no major holdups, the office’s director said April 13.

The ORS-1 spacecraft is now waiting for its Minotaur-1 rocket to be cleared for launch after a rocket with similar components and the same builder suffered its second consecutive failure in March, ORS Office Director Peter Wegner said during a media briefing at the National Space Symposium here.

The ORS Office was established in 2007 at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., to rapidly augment or replace existing military space capabilities. U.S. Strategic Command in 2008 tapped the office to deliver an overhead reconnaissance and surveillance capability for U.S. Central Command on short order.

In response, the ORS Office began development of the ORS-1 optical and infrared imaging spacecraft, using the Air Force’s Space Development and Test Wing as an acquisition agent. In October 2008, Air Force leadership allowed the program to begin on a 24-month schedule that had no margin for error, Wegner said. Goodrich ISR Systems of Danbury, Conn., was chosen as the prime contractor and payload provider, and ATK Space Systems of Beltsville, Md., built the satellite platform.

Various technical troubles added six months to the anticipated development timeline.

“It really came down to the people working together to solve those problems, and we’ve had many problems on the program,” Wegner said. “Any program that goes through a development like this struggles. In every case we were able to sit down as a combined team and work through a fix.”

The mission is expected to cost $226.3 million, including launch, according to ORS spokeswoman Valerie Skarupa.

In the end, the success of the program can be largely attributed to the management philosophy of allowing decisions to be made at the lowest possible level, said Air Force Col. Carol Welsch, commander of the Space Development and Test Wing’s Space Development Group.

“This was truly a team effort,” Welsch said. “We were able to move quickly by empowering lieutenant colonel-level program managers to sit with the contractor, look at data, make decisions quickly and move quickly. So that’s a positive lesson learned that we will take forward into future programs.

“We also were able to move quickly because of the fact that we were providing an end-to-end capability. So we could make trades within those different segments all within our directorate, and having decisions made at the lowest level allowed us to move quicker.”

The spacecraft completed environmental testing in April and is now ready to be shipped to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia for launch as soon as late May, Wegner said.

“Even though we went through a lot of streamlined processes, I’ve never seen a spacecraft go through [thermal vacuum testing] with as few issues as this one did,” Wegner said. “We walked out of there with four minor issues that needed to be fixed, and some of them were fixed before we came out of the chamber.”

The readiness of the satellite’s launch vehicle is the most significant unknown variable at this point, Welsch said. The Minotaur series of space launch vehicles, built by Orbital Sciences Corp., of Dulles, Va., have been successful in all 11 launch attempts since 2000. But the rockets feature a payload faring separation mechanism that is similar to one used by Orbital’s Taurus launch vehicle family. The last two Taurus launches — the most recent of which occurred in March — failed due to faring separation problems, destroying two NASA research satellites.

The Air Force is working with NASA and Orbital to determine whether there is cause to delay the ORS-1 launch, Welsch said. The decision to proceed with the launch will be made by Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom Sheridan, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center.

Meanwhile, the ORS Office continues to work to reduce the time needed to prepare rockets for launch. Minotaur rockets today require about 30 days to ready for launch, and the ORS Office and Orbital in May will complete a study to show how that timeline can be shortened to about six days without becoming prohibitively expensive, Wegner said.

To do this, boosters will have to be stored at launch facilities or in places where they could be delivered quickly to the launch pad, Wegner said. The study will lay out options for other logistics associated with launching rapidly.

“Today without squeezing it too hard you could get down to 20 days pretty easily,” Wegner said. “We want to go from 20 days down to about six. The studies that we’re doing really indicate the cliff is at about two to three days. If you want to get down to about two days, that’s when you’re storing in truly flight-ready mode, and that becomes really expensive because you’re in an ICBM-like operational construct.”