ORS Director: “We’re Not Here To Build Neat Toys”

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An interview with Col. John S.R. Anttonen, director of the U.S. Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office


For three consecutive years, the U.S. Air Force tried to shutter its rapid-response space development shop known as the Operationally Responsive Space Office, only to be rebuffed by Congress.

The Air Force finally appears to have thrown in the towel, requesting $6 million for the office next year. Documents accompanying the request said the office’s focus on the “successful integration of space-based capabilities into the core of U.S. national security operations has resulted in dramatically increased demand for and dependence upon space capabilities.”

What’s more, the service is contemplating an expanded role for the ORS Office. This could see the office handling future operational satellites for space surveillance and weather monitoring.

“We’ve made demonstrable steps for commitment and we are in the process of taking more,” said Air Force Col. John Anttonen, the head of the office, headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. “People say it’s a lot of talk — I think there’s been good evidence it isn’t.”

Anttonen points to steps the service is taking to apply lessons from two missions — ORS-1 and ORS-3, which launched in 2011 and 2013, respectively — throughout its space enterprise. Meanwhile, the office has three more missions on its short list: ORS-2, to demonstrate a modular space vehicle; ORS-4, which will launch on a new rocket from Hawaii; and ORS-5, a space surveillance technology demonstrator.

“We’re not here to build neat toys,” said Anttonen, who also hinted that the Air Force has committed substantially more to ORS than is shown in the budget request.

He spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.


Skeptics say the Air Force’s commitment to the ORS Office is merely to placate Congress. What makes you think otherwise?
One, we committed $26 million to the effort. That’s the first time the department has done that in three years. They gave us a mission, ORS-5, which has been a very important piece of our mission and discussions in the last year. And then the service has committed to a next program. We’ve made demonstrable steps for commitment and we are in the process of taking more.

ORS-1
ORS-1 satellite. Credit: Orbital ATK

What’s the status of ORS-1, an operational satellite launched to fill what the Pentagon described as an urgent need for imagery?
ORS-1 is going into its fourth year on orbit. One of the neat things about ORS-1 is that it was originally set up just for [Central Command] and certainly supported them during the conflicts in the Mideast. But because of the responsiveness of the system, we’ve been able to expand that to support several combatant commanders. It’s now two years beyond it’s design life. It’s the kind of system that ORS was set out to do: rapidly delivered, responsive capability, flex to support a variety of different contingencies. We expect ORS-1 to continue for at least a couple more years.

How has ORS-1 been a pathfinder for other programs?
One of the most important lessons of ORS-1 was the ground system. That was the first operational system flown on the Multi-Mission Space Operations Center. It’s now one of five satellites that have flown on that system. As a matter of fact, the next system we’re building, ORS-5, is going to fly on that system as well because we learned the lesson of open architecture and flexibility built in up front. That benefit has been huge across a lot of Space and Missile Systems Center programs and it’s turning into a look at how we do ground systems across the board.

Is there broader application for that ground system?
Open architecture ground systems — ground systems that can bring new satellites on quickly and cheaply and don’t have to be stovepiped and rebuilt every time — that’s the benefit. The other important part is the security. Security is an application. We manage that just like you manage security on a cellphone that’s managed by, say, Apple or Android.

Minotaur 1 ORS3
Orbital Sciences Minotaur 1 rocket launching ORS3 mission. Credit: Orbital Sciences

The ORS-3 mission, which launched November 2013, was less about the payload and more about the implementation concept. What were the lessons there?
What the ORS Office was attempting to do for that was a launch where we’re buying off the commercial market. Now, we didn’t get exactly there. We took several steps. We call it commercial-like. We used Federal Aviation Administration certifications, which was one of the first times that was done. We did streamlined range operations as part of that mission including all of our launch safety activities. When you modify the satellites you always have to rerun an analysis that calls for you to check whether the load’s safe. That typically takes months. We got that down to days. If you want to swap a satellite out — and we had 29 of them on there — how do you do it in a way that’s fast? We flew two wafers to carry the satellites on that mission, and so we demonstrated physically how you install, take them out and make it easy.

There hasn’t been much talk about ORS-2, which has been described as a radar satellite and a demonstration of modular space vehicle concepts. Where is that program?
It was a radar satellite. Typically on a satellite if I want to change something, it is extremely difficult and very expensive. Say I wanted to have a different reaction wheel — how would I go about doing it? Typically I’d have to go through and redo all the analysis and redo all the programming. On a system that’s an open standard architecture, I simply unplug it and I plug a new one in. One of things we’ve always had trouble with is when a third party changes something, say a third-tier vendor changes something on the satellite, you have to go all the way back up to the prime to do everything. This would be equivalent to you going back to Dell every time you swapped your mouse out. That’s not real effective. We had a third-party vendor that was building a propulsion system. The test was how quickly could you install this thing. It took them longer to unpack the system than it did to install it on the satellite. Literally, in less than 12 hours we demonstrated the capacity to integrate a brand new piece of equipment without the prime vendor.

How many times did you try this?
We did that three times with three different vendors. We did a propulsion system. We did a software module because software is an important piece of what we do, so we did a software module install, and then we went ahead and replaced the entire payload.

ORS-2 satellite
ORS-2 satellite. Credit: U.S. Air Force

So what is the payload on ORS-2 now?
We went out with a vendor called Trident that produces a synthetic aperture radar for unmanned aerial vehicles. We’re completing the testing with the satellite and we’re putting it in storage. There are a lot of opportunities on where that satellite could go and its flexibility makes it extremely easy to modify, but we have not selected one yet at this time. The Defense Department is trying to make this a standard that all satellites eventually follow.

The ORS-4 launch, which is the debut of an old-school rail-launch system in Hawaii, has been delayed several times. What’s the latest?
Our launch date is now in the fall of ’15. We had a couple of issues. We had some range issues, just accessibility to the range, but we had issues on our first-stage motor. It was a design flaw. We came to the conclusion that yes, we could go fly with this system at a slightly elevated risk. The important part there was to get with our mission partners — the satellites we’re flying — and get them to agree that they’re willing to go ahead and take that additional risk. So they accepted that. For us, the mission is to get the data on the flight. We feel we can do that on this mission all the way up through the first stage. We’re pretty confident we’ll be able to demonstrate what we’re looking for.

What, specifically, are you hoping to learn?
What we’re looking for on this mission is how do we speed up the range operations. Typically a launch campaign like ORS-3, for example, can run 90 days. ORS-4 is going to do it in 21. We’re really trying to compress the time it takes to go from the hangar to the pad to space.

Rail launch system
Rail launch system with a scale-model of the Super Strypi rocket attached. Credit: Sandia National Laboratories

People aren’t exactly lining up to use the rail-launched Super Strypi rocket. How do you apply this concept more broadly?
In commercial operations the bottom line is what counts. Reducing the time on the range, simplifying the rocket, simplifying the electronics, like the range safety electronics, makes it much more attractive for commercialization. And we have had a lot of commercial interest in it. We’re working with Sandia, the original designer, to commercialize and transition it. They have a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement out on how they plan to commercialize it. All of these newspace companies are interested in these concepts because when they talk about resupplying their constellations they need a system like this. Simple. Very reliable. Low cost.

Your office might be tasked with building a follow-on to the Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) system Block 10 satellite. Where might ORS-5 fit into that scheme?
We call ORS-5 an operational prototype for the SBSS-type of capabilities. The baseline concept to fully replace the SBSS capabilities is a three-satellite constellation. We’re going to do the first one in that operational demonstration. We’re going to prove out that this concept of taking a very large satellite and shrinking it down to three small ones actually works. There are other concepts that are also being explored that could be used for the follow on system.

So ORS-5 is one of the three that ultimately will comprise the SBSS follow-on?
We would build one — the baseline constellation would be three, but you would always have another one in the process. If you remember the original congressional goals for ORS, it was $20 million for the satellite bus, $20 million for the payload, $20 million for the launch. If you can get those prices down to those points and continue to drive the prices down over time, you can make that a very effective part of cost savings.

Is the ORS-5 launch under contract?
We don’t have a launch set yet. We put our draft request for proposal out over the summer. Our final RFP we want to release in the next month and we’ll do the award in the summertime. We asked industry: Can you meet $20 million? A lot of the newspace vendor concepts that are out there came back and said yes. But they have never built a rocket. The folks that have built the rockets or done the rideshares came back said, “We can’t meet it but only because you’re going to a highly unique orbit. You’re going to zero degrees.” They came back and said, “We can do $30 million.” We said “all right. Not bad.” It’s an improvement over where we were. So we removed the cost cap and we’re going back out with a new RFP.