Gary Payton

Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs


ary Payton’s view of space acquisition today is much brighter than it was when he took over as

deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs in late 2005. At that time, Payton’s agenda included dealing with cost growth on the

next generations of missile warning and weather satellites – problems that triggered mandatory Nunn-McCurdy reviews of alternatives and possible cancellation of both programs.

While the service has continued to experience difficulty on some of its programs, most notably with the development of the Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellites, none of its programs have run into the kind of cost increase over the past year that would require a Nunn-McCurdy review, Payton notes.

He credits the “back-to-basics” acquisition approach instituted by former Air Force Undersecretary Ron Sega for the

improved performance on space programs over the past year or so, but still is not ready to call space acquisition fixed.

One area that Payton, who served as a payload specialist aboard the first military flight of the space shuttle in 1985, is particularly proud of is the service’s record in the launch arena, which currently stands at 56 consecutive

successful launches in a row of operational satellites.

“Our launch success has been stunning in all honesty,” Payton said. “I like to remind people of that because it’s unprecedented.”

Payton, a retired Air Force colonel who

also has served in senior posts at NASA and the Missile Defense Agency, talked about his agenda during a

December interview with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.

Has the Air Force turned the corner on space acquisition?

We can see the corner. I don’t say that we’ve turned it yet. We may never know that we’ve turned the corner. We’re not in the business of building pencils here – this is tough work, making machinery to operate in a very hostile environment.

What is your assessment thus far of

United Launch Alliance (ULA), the joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing on launch?

ULA is going well. The first measure of merit is launch success. Whenever I see the folks at ULA, I say “whatever the recipe is, don’t change it as you move people around.”

I could sit down and calculate the money saved by not having failures. If there’s a splash on one satellite that costs me $600 million to build, the warfighter does not get the benefit from the satellite, and that’s a very, very expensive launch failure. We haven’t had those, so we’ve saved money, and most importantly, delivered space capabilities to the warfighter.

If you don’t have a good, reliable space launch capability, you really don’t have a good, reliable space program. I like to remind people of the recent success on launch because that’s a really good news story. During my time in the military space business, there have been two periods – in the late 1980s and the late 1990s – where almost every launch vehicle was grounded due to failures. After the launch failures of the late 1990s, we had the Broad Area Review on space launch, and we’re benefiting from the results of that review today.

The Air Force has yet to name an undersecretary to replace Ron Sega, who left in August. Has the vacancy

made it harder to advocate for space?

Any undersecretary shares authority with their secretary. As a result, Mike Wynne, the Air Force secretary, has retained the authorities he was sharing with Dr. Sega. I attend a whole bunch of meetings representing Secretary Wynne, s

o my schedule has gotten tougher, and his schedule has gotten tougher. We’re lucky to have someone with his background who worked with satellites and software during his time in industry.

A lot of the efforts on things like Operationally Responsive Space and space situational awareness that began under Dr. Sega still have a huge amount of momentum. It’s like the old saying – “no one is indispensable.” Even though we lost someone of the caliber and talent of Dr. Sega, there are a large amount of very talented folks still around.

Does one official need to be put in charge of the space work of both the Air Force and

the National Reconnaissance Office?

It could probably work both ways. Over the past 50 years, sometimes there has been a single official in charge of both black and white space, sometimes there have been separate officials. It has a lot to do with the personalities of the people involved. I think we have a great working relationship today with [the National Reconnaissance Office


Have you briefed the space commission that is reviewing Defense Department

space organization and requirements?

I haven’t talked to them yet. I would like to emphasize the notion that space is no longer a sanctuary. That’s not new news, but it’s like our launch successes – we have to remind folks once in a while. We tend to forget sometimes that the need to protect

our satellites in the future may have design ramifications like putting sensors on board to see if a satellite is snuggling up close to them.

You have stated your opposition to codes of conduct for space that could constrain the Pentagon’s options regarding protecting its satellites – are there any such agreements that would be reasonable for the United States to sign?

You need a definition of what you are trying to constrain. So what is the definition of an A-Sat [anti-satellite weapon]? A derelict second stage of a rocket? You could turn that into an A-Sat. An old satellite on its last legs? You could turn that into an A-Sat. The Soviets thought

the space shuttle was an A-Sat. So we have a problem of definition and verification. If you can’t define what it is, how do you verify if something is or is no

t an A-Sat


What’s your take on the health of the space industrial base?

We recently sat down with the Department of Commerce and NASA and developed a survey for industry. One of the common themes in the responses is that a lot of companies think

ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] is working against us. It’s doing the intended job of constraining U.S. technology from being part of foreign systems, but if a U.S. company can’t sell its subsystems overseas, it encourages the growth of overseas competitors.

Space systems are niche products for most companies – they don’t build 10,000 gyroscopes for satellites. The demand isn’t there. If it’s a small demand, and they are constantly getting underbid by

a foreign company, they’ll get out of the business. We’re seeing that not at the Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman level, but with the suppliers who provide

parts of satellites and rockets.

So we’re taking a look at that.

The Defense Department controls what’s on the munitions list. I don’t think this requires an act of Congress. So we could change the list of ITAR-restricted components. We wouldn’t be cavalier about it, but that’s one thing we could do. We’re analyzing the results of the survey to see exactly how much we can do for the space industrial base.

Are you concerned about the number of people retiring from the space work force?

It’s popular right now to wring your hands about the baby boomers, the Sputnik generation, who are eligible to retire soon, and universities not producing the requisite number of replacements. That may be true, but the folks graduating today are a lot more capable than I was when I graduated.

I’m going to a critical design review

at the Air Force Academy for Falconsat-5. Those cadets are designing and building satellites. They get the same degree I got when I graduated, but as brand new grads, they’re a lot more experienced and capable than I was at the same time. The Naval Academy and other universities are doing similar things.

Maybe it’s still a concern, but I would contend that although we’re losing thousands of folks to retirement, the lower number of folks replacing them are a lot more capable than I was, so maybe we don’t need a one-for-one replacement.

Do you have any industrial base concerns if either Lockheed Martin or Boeing wins the contracts for both the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) Communications System and GPS-3?

Not really. There are emerging new product lines on space situational awareness and Operationally Responsive Space, so I’m not so worried about the industrial base in that regard.

Do you believe the Defense Department needs a separate space corps?


What I like about the current setup is that you occasionally get folks who haven’t purely grown up in the space side of the house. That is a big benefit. If it became too stovepiped, we would lose that benefit. I go back to my time at the Missile Defense Agency – we had Army guys who were air defense/artillery, Navy folks who came from surface warfare, and Air Force folks who were battle management or test and evaluation folks. That’s a broad experience base you’re touching. A Navy guy sometimes had learned a lesson from working with Aegis ships and applied it to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense program.

There is a benefit to having a broader population to draw from. In a highly technical field like space you have to be constantly learning and educating yourself, and be open to accomplishing your mission in a different way.