Profile | Peter Wegner, Director, Operationally Responsive Space Office

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A black cloud of uncertainty has hung over the U.S. Air Force-led Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office ever since February, when the service proposed shutting down the rapid-response space development activity.

The office was stood up at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., in 2007 to pursue innovative, low-cost space capabilities that can be built and deployed rapidly in response to emerging military needs. Several experimental ORS satellites have been built and launched, along with the operational ORS-1 surveillance satellite now supporting U.S. Central Command forces.

The Air Force has requested $10 million for 2013 to incorporate ORS tenets into the mainstream military space procurement programs run by Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles. Skeptics liken that to leaving the fox to guard the henhouse.

It remains to be seen whether the ORS closure proposal will fly on Capitol Hill: Three of the four committees that oversee defense policy and spending have drafted bills recommending that the office be kept open.

Peter Wegner is nonetheless moving on, having accepted a job offer from the Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University in Logan. Meanwhile, the office is moving ahead with plans for more demonstration missions.

Wegner spoke recently with Space News staff writer Titus Ledbetter III.

What contribution has the ORS Office made to the overall military landscape?

When ORS started there were a lot of people who didn’t believe that small satellite systems really had any military capability or utility. When the office stood up, a lot of the questions around the community were about that. It was about, “Why are you even wasting money on these kinds of concepts? Why are we even wasting time building small satellites? There is no utility in them.” You don’t hear that anymore.

So where has this led?

Now, when you look around the community, you hear the senior leadership at Air Force Space Command, at SMC, at other places in the government talking about fractionating our space architecture and building a layer of small satellites and hosted payloads that have single-mission utility. That is a pretty fundamental change. I don’t think ORS was the only organization that fed into that, but certainly we were one of the significant ones. 

Has the uncertainty surrounding the ORS Office had an impact on operations?

Programs like ORS-1 that are operating to support U.S. Central Command have definitely not been impacted. The operations team has been completely insulated from any of that uncertainty. They know that it is a priority to keep that program funded. Where the uncertainty has affected us is in building partnerships.

Can you elaborate?

When we go out and talk to people about, “Hey, would you be willing to work with us on this program or that program?” we often get a response back of, “Well, I thought you were going away.” We also see it in exercises and war games, when we go out and talk to the combatant commanders about capabilities that we are developing. They go, “Well, I’m not really sure I want to play that ORS system because they may not be here in two years.”

What about partnerships on development programs?

Our partnerships are very broad including the Air Force Research Laboratory, NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, all of these organizations. I can think of a few cases where we are working with different organizations to jointly develop some piece of technology. We have had to have a lot of dialogue about, “OK, what if your funding goes away? What if your office goes away? Who owns the parts that we are building together? Do we own them? Do you own them? Who owns the cost overruns if you are gone?” It causes disruption in doing business.

In addition to the ORS Office, the Air Force has proposed closing out the long-running Space Test Program, which finds rides to orbit for promising space technologies. How would you assess the state of space-related research and development at the Pentagon?

That is something I worry a lot about when I watch where we are going. I look at the big programs of record and we are laying out an era where we are in this production phase for the next 15 years to 20 years with no new developments on the horizon. I really worry about the technology refresh. We know that today’s technologies are only good for about five years before they are obsolete. Trying to go back and do technology refresh may end up costing us more money than if we would have just stopped and designed a new system with the modern technologies that are available. Also, what happens to the intellectual capital? Maybe that’s the most important part of it — as you start drawing down on research and development funding, that intellectual capital goes away. That human capital is probably the most important thing you have. That is what you don’t want to lose.

Are you confident that ORS tenets will be absorbed by SMC as planned?

Yes, I am. I’m actually confident that the ORS concepts that are out there are going to make it into the national security space enterprise in a major way. We are going to disaggregate our space architecture and we are going to see in the future a layer of small satellites — single-mission-focused satellites and hosted payloads of various kinds — populating a much more robust space architecture. I’m hopeful that as I step down, it is an opportunity actually for the ORS Office and the Air Force to actually get closer together. I’m hoping that whoever sits in my chair next is able to develop a very strong relationship with SMC and Air Force Space Command to help them develop those kinds of architectures.

Do you see cultural or institutional issues with having SMC assume stewardship of the ORS legacy?

I don’t want to be too prejudicial about it or judgmental about it, but when I hear Air Force leadership talk about the need to disaggregate and change the way we are doing business, I see the challenge of doing that in the existing program offices out at SMC in Los Angeles. It is just that they have a huge job to do building these complex space systems and to then also turn to them and say, “We want you to build these small prototypes and do hosted payloads and do it really cheap and really fast,” is almost unfair. You can’t really do both of those at the same time.

If the ORS Office is closed, what is the impact to industry?

It is a low-dollar-level impact. You are not going to see massive layoffs and those kinds of things. Probably what you are going to see, though, is a lack of a champion for some of these kinds of innovative ideas and an organization that Congress has given special authorities to work outside of the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System and do things much more quickly. I think that is a big loss.

Do you have any regrets as you look back on your stint as the director of the ORS Office?

Strategically, I don’t know that I’ve done the best job of communicating both up and down the chain as well as with all of our partners across the community about what ORS is trying to do. Maybe sometimes I’m a little bit stubborn and maybe some of that stubbornness at times has hurt us in terms of developing some of those kinds of partnerships. That is one thing I reflect back on and think maybe if I would have handled these situations differently we would have developed these kinds of very good relationships that I see growing now even earlier.