When a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launched a national security mission to geostationary Earth orbit Jan. 15, the Space Force revealed that three of the payloads onboard were developed by one of its most secretive agencies, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office.
The announcement was unusual as the Space RCO, based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, operates under the radar and rarely advertises what it does.
Kelly Hammett, director of the Space RCO, said the decision to publicize the satellites on the USSF-67 mission is part of a broader effort to start shedding the office’s cloak of secrecy.
“We’re going to be a little bit more open about what we do,” he told SpaceNews in a recent interview.
Before taking over as head of the Space RCO seven months ago, Hammett ran the directed energy division of the Air Force Research Laboratory. One of his goals for the space agency is to boost its visibility on Capitol Hill and work with a wider swath of the space industry.
That is hard to do “if people don’t know we exist or what we do,” he said.
WHAT IS THE SPACE RCO?
The office is one of three acquisition organizations within the Space Force, along with the Space Development Agency and the much larger Space Systems Command.
Congress established the Space RCO in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Its main backer in Congress was Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M).
Heinrich for years had been critical of the Air Force for not supporting the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office at Kirtland Air Force Base. The ORS Office was established in 2007 to handle fast-response space systems and smaller satellites but the Air Force by 2013 stopped funding the office so it could fold its activities into its main space procurement shop in Los Angeles, the Space and Missile Systems Center.
Congress nevertheless kept adding money for ORS for several years and Heinrich ultimately pushed to create a separate organization for rapid space acquisitions that would be independent and physically separated from the Space and Missile Systems Center, which is now the Space Systems Command. And the Space RCO was born.
Heinrich and other lawmakers at the time also complained that the Air Force’s procurement bureaucracy was not agile enough to respond to challenges posed by rival space powers threatening to target U.S. systems with anti-satellite weapons.
Space RCO was modeled after the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, established in 2003. Working mostly behind the scenes, the Air Force RCO led the development of the X-37B uncrewed reusable spaceplane and the B-21 long-range strike bomber.
The Space RCO’s workforce of about 200 people includes 80 government civilian and military officers. The rest are support contractors.
Like its Air Force counterpart, the Space RCO operates very differently than most military procurement shops, with far more autonomy and congressionally delegated authorities to allocate resources.
The agency does not disclose its annual funding, but Hammett said he expects budgets and workload to grow as the Pentagon pumps more money into space programs to compete with China.
Most RCO projects are funded by the Space Force’s classified budget, which has soared in recent years — from $3.7 billion in 2021 to $6.5 billion in 2023, according to estimates from the aerospace consulting firm Velos.
“It’s a very dynamic environment,” Hammett said. “The demand signal is growing for space systems, services and capabilities. If you watch what happened in the budget over the last couple years, the Space Force budget is just skyrocketing because of this demand signal, and a big chunk of that demand signal is coming to us.”
SPACE COMMAND IS THE MAIN CUSTOMER
U.S. Space Command, responsible for military operations in the space domain, can go directly to the Space RCO to fill an urgent need. The command’s requests are approved by the RCO board of directors and don’t have to go through the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s onerous requirements-vetting process that most programs endure.
The Space RCO board of directors includes the Secretary of the Air Force, the Chief of Space Operations, the commander of U.S. Space Command and the undersecretaries of defense for research and acquisition.
Congress also gave the RCO discretion to pay for projects from a consolidated appropriations line. “There’s no magic formula for rapid acquisition,” Hammett said. “It’s using all the tools in the toolkit.”
It helps that “all my money comes in one pot so I can shift it between programs based on execution and needs. I don’t need congressional approval to reprogram funds in a year of execution. That flexibility is key,” he added.
Space RCO can award contracts of up to $1 billion with minimum red tape. “We don’t have to go to the Pentagon or to the service acquisition executive to get approval below that,” Hammett said. “It’s another thing that lets us go fast.”
Hammett said these authorities allow projects to move much faster than traditional programs, but the agency’s culture is also a major factor. As a relatively small organization, there are fewer layers of approvals than in a typical major DoD acquisition program office.
These exemptions from Pentagon red tape, whether enacted by Congress or granted by the Defense Department, are not taken for granted, said Hammett. “If we misuse any of those authorities, they will be taken away from us.”
FOCUS ON SATELLITES AND GROUND SYSTEMS
Hammett noted that the three Space RCO smallsats launched on USSF-67 are not experiments but operational satellites supporting military activities. Two carry space situational awareness sensors, and the other has an encryption payload to protect uplink and downlink satellite communications.
“The technologies aboard these satellites will be leveraged by the Space Force and probably will proliferate to other systems,” Hammett said. He noted that the payloads were produced and delivered in less than three years, which is breakneck speed by military procurement standards.
Besides the USSF-67 payloads, there are few other projects Space RCO has publicly discussed.
One is SCAR, short for Satellite Communications Augmentation Resource, an effort to modernize the military’s aging network of satellite antennas with electronically steerable phased arrays. Space RCO last year awarded defense contractor BlueHalo a $1.4 billion eight-year deal to replace outdated analog antennas with new phased arrays.
SCAR resulted from an urgent request by U.S. Space Command to increase the capacity of the military’s Satellite Control Network to command and control military satellites. “We have a huge proliferation of new payloads going into orbit, and we need more communications capabilities from the ground,” said Hammett.
Another project run by the Space RCO is a ground-systems architecture to operate military satellites known as GC3, for Ground Command, Control and Communications. Ball Aerospace and Booz Allen Hamilton are the primary contractors.
“This is a program that we’re starting to talk a little bit more about,” Hammett said. It began as a procurement of ground systems for RCO satellites but has evolved into a more ambitious effort to develop a common platform that could be used by any military satellite.
The Space Systems Command runs a similar program called Enterprise Ground Services, or EGS. There are ongoing discussions “about unifying the ground software efforts in the EGS program and our GC3 program,” said Hammett. The goal is to “try to latch those up and provide a more common look and feel for the operator.”
Across the Space Force, there is a “proliferation of all these new systems, each with different user interfaces,” he said. Supporting multiple ground-control systems is costly, which is why the Air Force started the EGS program years ago. “We’ll be working with Space Systems Command to see how we move this into the modern age,” said Hammett.
To get feedback from users before new systems are acquired, the RCO is working with the Space Force’s Space Operations Command. This is the command responsible for training and equipping Space Force Guardians, so their input is important, said Hammett. “They are going to help us make sure they can operate the system” before it’s too late to make changes, he added. “We’re addressing their concerns.”
Several other projects are underway at Space RCO that Hammett could not discuss. And more are coming, he said.
“We’re already close to running out of desks,” he said. “I don’t want to get too big, but we have been working on a potential military construction project at Kirtland Air Force Base to get a bigger facility.”
OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE PRIVATE SECTOR
Hammett said Space RCO is looking to leverage commercial space technology. However, the highly classified nature of most of the agency’s projects creates barriers for companies that don’t have the required clearances or secure facilities.
“We are aware that there are emerging companies” developing technologies that could meet military needs, he said. A team of “tech scouts” regularly attends industry events and conferences. “They don’t always broadcast a lot. But they’re paying attention to what’s emerging.”
At unclassified industry gatherings, Hammett said, “we talk about what we can, and we’re going to be talking about more … We want new entrants to tell us what their capabilities are.”
Of particular interest are technologies to automate the operation of satellites and constellations, Hammett said.
“We see SpaceX deploy the Starlink constellation 60 satellites at a time, and they have onboard automation,” he said. “I’ll say that’s probably the one thing that is the most exciting to me that we’re seeing in commercial systems.”
Unlike military satellite operators, “the SpaceX guys don’t have a bunch of antennas all over the world driving their satellites. They fly autonomously. And that’s certainly a technology that we would want to leverage in the future, and there are other companies doing that too.”
The Space Force’s new space acquisition executive Frank Calvelli is a strong advocate of rapid procurement and the use of commercial technologies, which is encouraging to hear, said Hammett.
“He’s trying to move the needle,” he said. “I think he has really brought some much-needed focus and discipline.”
A lot of what Space RCO does is uniquely military, said Hammett. “But there are commercially available mature solutions, and we just need to understand the maturity of the solutions. That drives our acquisition strategies.”
A push to accelerate acquisitions is welcome by U.S. Space Command, which has a growing list of technologies it needs to protect satellites and make U.S. systems more resilient, Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command, said Jan. 24.
The dialogue between the command and the Department of the Air Force’s procurement organizations “is better than it’s ever been,” he said at the National Security Space Association’s Defense and Intelligence Conference.
“We communicate regularly about where we think we’re going and what are the capabilities we think we need,” he said. “And we see them trying to respond.”
“Calvelli wants to move faster, deliver more capability and resilience, and that’s exactly what we need to do our mission,” Shaw said.
On the performance so far of the Space Force acquisition enterprise, Shaw added, “They are delivering things, and I expect even more.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.