Putting Space to the Test

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WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Defense Department seeks to speed development and acquisition of on-orbit space capabilities, the U.S. Air Force Space Development and Test Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., stands out as an example of what the Pentagon hopes to achieve.

The wing, which includes the Space Test Program and Space Development Group, delivers small, experimental spacecraft geared toward research and development efforts in as little as 12 months and has ambitions to dramatically shorten the time it takes to build and launch a satellite.

“There’s been a lot of talk from a lot of the seniors across the [Defense Department] and Air Force Space Command, about doing smaller packages and more rapid acquisition development, and we’re being held up as one of those organizations that’s doing that today,” said Air Force Col. B. Edwin Wilson, who commands the wing. “The challenge is that we do it for science and technology reasons, typically. So we take on risk in a little different profile than a lot of different organizations. The challenge is how you grow the capability to meet some of the operational requirements that are being levied.”

As one of Air Force Space Command’s six space system wings, Wilson describes the wing as a one-stop shop for small-scale space research and development

“We’re one of the few organizations in Air Force Space Command that’s a cradle-to-grave organization, in that we do development, acquisition, test and we also do operations,” he said.

Wilson said the wing utilizes a diverse design team that brings together a variety of missions in support of numerous organizations and agencies, including NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Army Space and Missile Defense Command and numerous research laboratories.

“So we do everything — from design of a mission, building it, developing it, whether that involves a satellite or a command and control suite,” Wilson said. “We also have a team that does small launch.”

Wilson says the wing’s focus on small satellites — typically 450 kilograms or less — and its rapid turn-around from design to on-orbit test and evaluation is the hallmark of the organization’s work.

“If somebody wants a fast-track development to put together an experiment, we typically in 12 to 24 months can put that together and get it on orbit,” he said. “Whether it’s … developing and executing or implementing an experiment that’s going to go on orbit, 12 to 24 months isn’t bad.”

Wilson says development and test work at the wing happens so quickly that a new lieutenant or a civil servant serving a three- or four-year assignment will have the opportunity to work on as many as six flight projects during that time.

“It’s a little different … than our counterparts out at Los Angeles that are working on larger systems,” he said.

With a core annual budget of $98 million, the wing devotes nearly half of its funding to the Space Test Program. Another $15 million to $16 million pays for the Rocket Systems Launch program, while the balance is dedicated to development of command and control suites and a multimission space operations center.

In addition to the wing’s core budget, additional money derived from government customers from outside the wing are a primary source of funds. Wilson estimates that in 2009, funds from other agencies, including the Missile Defense Agency, NASA and the NRO, will reach $220 million, bringing the organization’s total budget to about $325 million.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in the budget … that’s being driven exclusively by customer funds,” he said. “Five years ago our budget total was $200 million.”

To date, the wing’s most visible program is a new satellite system being built for the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space program, co-located at Kirtland. The project, dubbed ORS-1, involves rapid development of an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system for U.S. Central Command. Initiated in October 2008, ORS-1 completed its critical design review in June. It is currently in the assembly, integration and test phase, and is scheduled for launch in October 2010.

While 24 months from start to finish is a quick turnaround for a military satellite, Wilson says they can do better.

“We are looking at alternatives that would allow us to launch not in an 18 to 24 month timeline but to drop that to six months or less and in the end — in support of the ORS mission — 7 to 10 days to support a launch. We think that’s very feasible.”

Another development program already on orbit, TacSat-3, launched May 19 atop a Minotaur rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore. The spacecraft is flying a hyperspectral imaging sensor designed to deliver tactical surveillance information from space to military commanders in the field within 10 minutes of acquiring the data.

An upcoming mission for the wing is the STP-S26, a multipayload launch that will be executed by the wing’s Space Test Program at Kirtland. The mission represents the 26th small launch vehicle mission in the Space Test Program’s 40-year-history of flying Defense Department experiments.

Slated for launch in May 2010 from the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska, S26 will demonstrate a multipayload capability on the Minotaur 4 using a new secondary payload adapter. S26 will also demonstrate the dual-orbit capability of the Minotaur 4, developed by Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., using the Hydrazine Auxiliary Propulsion System. The primary payload, STPSat-2, will be the first demonstration of the standard interface vehicle and will include two Space Experiment Review Board payloads: a space phenomenology experiment and an ocean data telemetry microsat link. S26 will also launch four Space Experiment Review Board rideshare payloads, including FastSat, a science and technology satellite developed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.