The U.S. Air Force is moving in the right direction to address problems with its space acquisition work, but the service still has considerable work to do in this area before it can regain confidence on Capitol Hill, according to congressional aides and members of Congress.

The Air Force’s recent decision to develop new satellites in an incremental fashion, rather than fielding new capabilities all at once, could help the service avoid some of the cost growth and schedule delays that have plagued the space acquisition portfolio, the congressional sources said. But they also warned that they are not entirely convinced the space acquisition problems of recent years, which led to multi billion-dollar cost overruns, are a thing of the past. And despite what they see as progress, they cautioned that full funding for space programs in 2007 is far from guaranteed.

Nevertheless, some congressional aides said the new approach of buying satellites in blocks to slowly introduce new technology could at least make the Pentagon’s 2007 budget request for space programs less susceptible to major reductions as the committees begin marking up their versions of the defense-spending legislation.

Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), a major senate supporter of military space programs, said in a March 31 interview that the large number of cost overruns and schedule delays on military space programs in recent years provided a lot of ammunition for members of Congress eager to slash the budget requests for military space programs. Those overruns and schedule slips also make it more difficult for supporters to advocate for those programs, Allard said.

Programs like Space Radar and the Transformation Satellite (T-Sat) Communications System, which each have sustained significant reductions to their budget requests in recent years, could be in for similar cuts as Congress works on its 2007 budget legislation, Allard said.

Allard, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and one of Congress’ most vocal advocates for military space work, said that he was pleased with many of the things he saw during a recent tour of Air Force and contractor space facilities, but said he also saw several things that concerned him.

Allard spent Feb. 20-23 visiting the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base; the Air Force Research Laboratory’s directed energy and space vehicles directorates at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico; Boeing Satellite Systems in El Segundo, Calif.; Space Exploration Technologies in El Segundo; Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Sunnyvale, Calif.; Orbital Sciences Corp. in Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson, Ariz.

Allard said he was impressed with the skills of the space work force, and that the satellites under development today would likely bring valuable new capabilities to the military.

The military’s new incremental fielding strategy might help bring those capabilities from new programs like Space Radar and T-Sat to U.S. troops without falling into the same problems the Air Force has had in recent years, Allard said.

“Once we get these satellites into space, we’re going to have some really great, incredible capabilities,” said Allard.

However, the senator said that the commitment from the Air Force’s top acquisition officials to this strategy does not seem to be matched at the program-management level. Program managers, he said, appeared to be focused on designs that could overwhelm the satellites they are building with too many requirements. Those demanding requirements could, in turn, lead to the construction of more satellites that are too large, too complicated and too expensive, Allard said.

Allard also expressed concern that the Air Force and its contractors may not be applying sufficient attention to detail on satellite design and construction. Allard said he hoped that the Air Force would address this issue before it causes problems on the level of the national missile defense interceptors that failed to launch in tests in late 2004 and early 2005.

For its part, the Air Force is hoping Congress will exercise patience as it examines the 2007 budget request for space programs.

Richard McKinney, director of space acquisition in the office of the undersecretary of the Air Force, said the Air Force’s recent decision to apply more conservative cost estimates to its programs is driving up their cost in the 2007 budget request, which could make them appealing targets for reductions on Capitol Hill.

The Air Force previously had developed cost estimates for its space programs with a 50-percent confidence level — meaning those efforts were just as likely to exceed their price tag as to meet it.

The service now is using an 80-percent figure that was part of a set of recommendations issued in 2003 from the “Report of the Defense Science Board/Air Force Scientific Advisory Board Joint Task Force on Acquisition of National Security Space Programs,” which was chaired by A. Thomas Young, former Martin Marietta president and chief operating officer.

While the cost of programs may inflate budget requests in the near term as a result of this change, their long-term cost may drop as program managers will have more resources at their disposal to deal with problems as they crops up, McKinney said during an April 4 panel discussion at the 22nd National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Even a two-month delay while waiting for additional funds to address a small problem on a space program can drive up its price tag by $100 million or more, McKinney said.