Latest ORS-4 Launch Delay Reinforces Government Watchdog’s Assessment

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WASHINGTON — Just days before the scheduled Oct. 29 inaugural launch of a rocket intended to launch small satellites on relatively short notice, the U.S. Air Force acknowledged that the mission had been delayed, again, until further notice.

As if on cue, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report Oct. 29 saying none of several Defense Department efforts to field quick-reaction launch vehicles has advanced past the development stage. Among the programs cited in the report was the just-postponed Operationally Responsive Space (ORS)-4 mission, which features a rail-launched rocket dubbed Super Strypi.

The mission, managed by the Air Force’s ORS Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, originally was scheduled to launch in October 2013 from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii. But the mission was delayed, first by range issues — this is the first-ever orbital launch from Hawaii — and then by motor issues.

“The ORS-4 Super Strypi mission is the first launch of this type of launch vehicle,” Peggy Hodge, a spokeswoman for the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, which oversees the ORS Office, said in an emailed response to SpaceNews questions. “As such, and not unexpected, we are working through a few launch processing issues.”

Air Force officials have said one of the primary goals of the ORS-4 mission is to demonstrate accelerated range operations. A new launch date has not been announced.

For more than a decade, the Defense Department has been working on what it calls “responsive launch” capability, which would allow it to launch satellites or payloads into orbit on relatively short notice. Traditionally, rockets have been manufactured to order, which typically means a lag of two or more years between contract and launch.

Efforts to dramatically shorten that timetable are driven by what Pentagon officials say is a need to quickly plug gaps in space capabilities or deploy new ones in response to emerging military requirements. This was among the rationales for establishing the ORS Office, which also is experimenting with spacecraft that can be manufactured and reconfigured relatively quickly depending on mission requirements.

But lawmakers have grown increasingly concerned about the Defense Department’s progress — or lack thereof — in ORS efforts. As part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress asked for a report from the Pentagon and the GAO on responsive launch options.

Currently, the Defense Department does not have formal requirements for responsive launch because of uncertainties about threats to its satellite constellations, the GAO report said. The Pentagon told Congress it makes more sense to wait until the threat is better understood before drafting the requirements.

The report, “Space Acquisitions: GAO Assessment of DOD Responsive Launch Report,” assessed several ongoing responsive launch development projects:

  • The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access program, intended to field a launcher for satellites weighing up to 45 kilograms for $1 million each. The first flights of the system, being developed by Boeing, could come as early as next year.
  • DARPA’s XS-1 experimental spaceplane, which would be capable of flying 10 times in 10 days. The program is currently in the study phase, and DARPA officials plan to decide whether to move forward with further development next year. Three teams are working on the program: Boeing and Blue Origin; Masten Space Systems and XCOR Aerospace; and Northrop Grumman and Virgin Galactic.
  • The ORS-4 mission.
  • U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s Soldier-Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space, a liquid-methane-fueled rocket designed to launch satellites weighing 25 kilograms on 24 hours’ notice for $1 million. Army leaders said in August that the program has been shelved.
  • The Army’s Multipurpose NanoMissile System, a liquid-fueled core booster augmented by various strap-on solid-rocket motors that would put payloads of about 20 kilograms into space.

“At this time, none of these efforts is positioned to move from development and demonstration to production and fielding,” the GAO report said.

The report notes that three Defense Department offices were pursuing five responsive launch programs that would carry small-class payloads to the same orbit. Defense Department officials told the GAO that the projects were not duplicative and are “pursuing different objectives.”