WASHINGTON — Officials with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate estimate at least 90 percent of the Pentagon’s satellites on orbit today have components that can trace their lineage to work done at the directorate, which has been paving the way in radiation-hardened electronics since the 1960s. If history is any indication, technologies being developed at the Space Vehicles Directorate today, such as so-called Plug-n-Play satellite interfaces, may be the building blocks for satellites of tomorrow.

The Space Vehicles Directorate’s history goes back to 1963 and the establishment of the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. Fear of a Soviet nuclear attack motivated the U.S. military to find ways to harden weapons systems to survive a radiation blast. That expertise would soon contribute to hardening spacecraft electronics to withstand both natural and man-made radiation.

The Air Force Weapons Laboratory also conducted research in the relatively new field of directed energy, and was eventually renamed Phillips Laboratory. In 1997, the Phillips Lab was split into two directorates: one for directed energy and the other for space vehicles. The Air Force Geophysics Laboratory at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., was moved under the newly created Space Vehicles Directorate.

The Space Vehicles Directorate has blazed a trail in launching small satellites to test and evaluate new spacecraft components including microprocessors, computer memory, cryocoolers, solar arrays and sensors.

“We’re really happy with many of the advancements we’ve made in fundamental technologies,” said Air Force Col. Bradley J. Smith, commander of the Space Vehicles Directorate. “Some of those technologies are really enabling us to do some things we just couldn’t do before.”

The largest share of the directorate’s $378 million budget is focused on its experimental small satellite programs, Smith said. The directorate’s Communications/Navigation Outage Forecasting System satellite was launched last April to detect disturbances in the ionosphere that affect communications and navigations systems. It has improved the Air Force’s ability to predict these disturbances and also has contributed to the basic scientific knowledge of the ionosphere, Smith said.

The directorate also is leading the development of the TacSat-3 satellite, an experimental hyperspectral imaging satellite that will be tasked directly from the battlefield, process the data on-orbit and return imagery to the ground during a single 10-minute pass. The satellite was expected to be launched in January but was delayed by a faulty transceiver. The new transceiver was delivered the week of March 9 and the directorate now is targeting May for its launch aboard a Minotaur rocket from Wallops IslandVa., Smith said.

Another developmental effort at the Space Vehicles Directorate, called Plug-n-Play technology, seeks to standardize and automate the interfaces between satellite components to make the satellite construction cheaper and faster.

“Today all our satellites are built by hand,” Smith said. “A single cable bundle can take six months. With Plug-n-Play, we’d eventually like to rapidly configure a satellite in six or seven days.”

The directorate recently completed its development of a set of Plug-n-Play standards, and it has begun the process of transferring the technology to industry. The Air Force in May will issue $500,000 contracts to as many as six companies to develop Plug-n-Play network architectures that will be the basis for the TacSat-5 satellite, which will likely be built by one of those companies for launch around 2012.

The fruits of the Space Vehicles Directorate’s labors have become the backbone of some of the United States‘ most important operational satellites, said Marc Owens, chief of the directorate’s space electronics branch. Years ago the directorate recognized a movement within the space industry away from customized microprocessors to more flexible chips called field-programmable gate arrays. The directorate enabled the development of the RAD6000 and RAD750 processors now manufactured by BAE Systems and the 603E processor manufactured by Honeywell.

Those radiation-hardened processors are used by many U.S. military and civil space programs, including the new generations of polar- and geostationary-orbiting weather satellites, GPS 2F and GPS 3 satellites, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency and Mobile User Objective System communications satellites and NASA spacecraft. The chips also are used in commercial satellites.

One area the directorate has improved over the past few years is in aligning its portfolio with the long-term strategy of its biggest customer, Air Force Space Command, Smith said. The directorate has shifted many of its investments toward Space Command’s emerging needs, such as the space situational awareness mission, he said. It also has remained focused on the types of advanced research that may lead to revolutionary capabilities, such as research in Bose-Einstein condensates, sensitive molecules with properties that may in the future lend themselves to creating extremely sensitive navigation systems or vibration detection systems.

“It’s a difficult balance between what the Air Force knows it needs versus what it doesn’t know it needs,” Smith said. “We have to invest in things that are long shots … even though some of those things might not have a customer in the near term.”

Space Vehicles Directorate At a Glance

Mission: Develop and transition high pay-off space technologies supporting the warfighter while leveraging commercial, civil and other government capabilities to ensure America‘s advantage.

Commander: Air Force Col. Bradley J. Smith.

Year Established: Created in 1963 as the Air Force Weapons Laboratory.

Location: Headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., with operations at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass.

Budget: $378 million.

Employees: 941 military, federal and contractor employees.