Old habits die hard, especially in an organization as big and bureaucratic as the U.S. Department of Defense, and space is no exception. The debate over big, do-everything satellites versus smaller craft that can be deployed in greater numbers has raged for more than a decade in U.S. national security circles, but the operational platforms, it seems, keep getting larger, costing more and taking longer to build.
Peter Wegner, who heads the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, nonetheless believes there has been a collective awakening among U.S. government agencies to the idea that the nation’s space architecture needs to be more agile and flexible. Now the debate has turned to just how to achieve that.
The ORS Office was established in 2007 to develop the capability to augment or replace military space capabilities on very short timescales. The office’s end-state goal is to be able to integrate and launch operational satellites in less than a week by 2015.
It has been a busy 2009 for the ORS Office as its staff has grown from just half a dozen employees to more than 50. The office has focused much of its energy during the year on developing the business practices and infrastructure it needs to operate. With this process nearly complete, the next step is to figure out exactly which kinds of space missions are most deserving of the office’s limited resources in the near term.
One major milestone for the ORS Office this year was the launch of TacSat-3, an experimental satellite that is proving the value of hyperspectral imagery to the military, Wegner said. Hyperspectral sensors break reflected light into dozens, if not hundreds, of spectral bands, revealing information that often escapes detection by conventional optical instruments.
The office this year also started building its first operational satellite, ORS-1, in response to an unspecified need for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data from U.S. Central Command. And the office issued 22 small contracts for the development of promising space technologies that could be incorporated into future missions.
Next year will see the launch of ORS-1 and the experimental TacSat-4 satellite, along with the establishment of the Rapid Response Space Works facility at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., where satellites will be built on demand. The ORS Office also plans to start a program called SARsat, which will feature construction of a synthetic aperture radar satellite but whose primary goal is to demonstrate the feasibility of having a completed spacecraft ready for launch one week after the order is given.
Despite a mandate to do things differently, however, Wegner has had to deal with issues familiar to any space program manager. For example, the Pentagon’s 2010 budget request for the ORS Office was short of what is needed to keep ORS-1 on track, although Congress is poised to provide additional funding in its forthcoming defense appropriations bill.
Wegner spoke recently with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.
ORS-1 has been under contract since October 2008. How is development going?
We’re on track to launch the satellite in December 2010, and it’s been really remarkable what we have learned so far across the space enterprise about what it’s going to mean to have very agile, flexible space systems. It’s all new — everything from the contracting side, to development, to working with the contractor, to how to operationalize the satellite with the Joint Space Operations Center.
We have heard the satellite is over budget. Is this the case?
It’s not way over budget. It’s over our initial estimate. When we kicked the program off, we put together a cost range and had that validated with cost estimates done by two independent agencies. We started ORS-1 toward the low end of that range, and we are fairly close to the high number right now. But we’re in the middle of contract negotiations so I can’t comment on the exact numbers.
Why does the nation need an ORS capability?
It’s interesting that I am answering that question less and less these days. The first year was really tough. People were really questioning why we were doing this, and there was a lot of pushback. And for whatever reason, that’s almost completely gone now. People no longer debate whether we need a space architecture that’s agile and flexible and gives us options.
I tell the people in my office that I no longer worry about the ORS concept surviving. We’re going to do it. I’m not exactly sure how, or who is going to do it, but I can see the tentacles reaching out into different agencies and different programs. It’s less important to me that the ORS Office survive or that the ORS Office do certain things. The most important thing is that the nation has those options when we need them.
What question do you most often hear now?
The big question they ask is how are you going to do it? Who’s going to pay for it and where does the money come from? How will we run operations and acquisitions? Those are the kinds of problems we want to be solving, so I think that’s pretty exciting. That’s why we were stood up.
TacSat-3 launched in May. What have you learned from that mission, and what are the plans for the satellite after its one-year demonstration?
The TacSat-3 launch was a great step forward, and we are learning an awful lot about how to treat ORS-1 when it launches. We got the first image from TacSat-3 in four days, and then we had the first set of data products going out for exploitation within 19 days. As of today, we’ve collected in excess of 600 hypercubes that are being exploited by a wide variety of users, and we have taskings coming in from combatant commands and intelligence customers around the world. There are some really fascinating things coming out that we really didn’t know we could do with hyperspectral imagery, but unfortunately they are classified.
We are working right now on the transition to operations strategy, and ultimately it will be [U.S. Air Force] Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, who decides whether the satellite will enter operations. My sense is we will see TacSat-3 transition to full-time operations mode in 2010.
Your budget for 2010 is likely be somewhere around $120 million. Will that limit the number or scope of missions you can pursue?
Absolutely. We’ve come up with a list of seven missions that we think are critical for the ORS Office to be able to reconstitute in the future. We call it the seven sisters of ORS. The struggle I have right now is vetting those missions with the community and making sure everyone agrees that’s the right list. Then I need help deciding in what order to build them. Our requirements are set by General Chilton and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley. My homework assignment is to get that list in front of those two decision-makers in the form of an executive committee meeting in the next couple months.
Do you need more money to carry out the assignment you have been tasked with, and what would you do with a bigger budget?
Yes, I think we need more money. But if I were to get more money, I would give it to the services to operationalize the capabilities we have matured, like TacSat-3. We need to be putting dollars into the services to go procure additional units and maintain and sustain those systems.
What will you seek to accomplish with the SARsat program?
The most important thing we are doing in that program is driving through the concept of operations and laying in place every piece of infrastructure to go from call-up to launch in a week. So the program is really about that and much less about the particular sensor on the satellite. Our end-state goal is to do call-up to launch inside of a week with a multiple set of different mission capabilities. So we want to press through right now with the very first one as a pipe-cleaning exercise, to uncover all the things that get missed when you’re sitting around drawing up a mission with PowerPoint charts. We won’t know until we actually do it.
One of the original goals for ORS was to have a responsive space launch capability by 2010, which has not materialized. What needs to change in space launch for the ORS mission?
We have the rockets today that will enable that in the Minotaur 1, Minotaur 4 and Falcon 1. So I don’t think the answer is developing a new launch system. There are specific things we need to do to go from call-up to launch in six days, but they’re pretty minor in the overall scheme of things.
Part of it is streamlining the range operations. The Air Force is doing things now like autonomous flight termination systems and GPS metric tracking that will speed up the whole process of standing up the range and getting all the support equipment to do the launch. One of the big challenges for turning around a Minotaur 1 right now is developing the mission data load and trajectory software to guide the rocket through flight, which can take three months. We’ve developed a software tool that can do it in a couple of hours. That’s one of the things we will put to use in the SARsat experiment.