Senate Urges Pentagon To Loft Grounded Satellite

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Senate appropriators are urging the U.S. Department of Defense to pay for the launch of a long-grounded civilian scientific satellite as a means of promoting competition in the military space arena.

In the report accompanying its version of the 2012 defense spending bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee expressed concern about the rising cost of launching Pentagon payloads. “The Committee believes that competition is necessary to achieve the necessary cost reductions and that the Department should support innovative strategies, such as funding the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite, to assist new entrants in meeting the requirements for mission assurance,” the report says.

The Deep Space Climate Observatory uses hardware initially assembled for an Earth observation project conceived in the 1990s by then-U.S. Vice President Al Gore. That mission, dubbed Triana, encountered stiff political headwinds that prevented NASA from seeing it through to launch.

The spacecraft platform has since been given a new name and mission: sentinel for space weather events that could affect satellites in orbit as well as sensitive electronics on the ground. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has funding and management responsibility for the reconstituted project.

Currently, the vast majority of U.S. national security payloads are launched aboard Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets under the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Both rockets are produced and operated by Denver-based United Launch Alliance, a Lockheed Martin joint venture.

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), the rocket-making startup founded by Internet millionaire Elon Musk, has been working hard to break what it says is United Launch Alliance’s monopoly on Pentagon launch business. SpaceX has won considerable NASA business for its Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket and is working on a heavy-lift vehicle with an eye toward the military space market.

Air Force officials have said they intend to provide opportunities for new entrants into the military launch market. But funding is an issue: Cultivating competition likely would draw funding from the EELV program, on which the Air Force is seeking to stabilize production to help keep costs down.

“The Committee intends to examine future budget requests to balance the need to stabilize the EELV industrial base with the need to promote competition,” the appropriations report said. “Therefore, the Department is urged to retain flexibility with its block-buy acquisition strategy as opportunities for competition by new launch entrants become available.”

The Senate report did not identify any funding to be used for launching the Deep Space Climate Observatory, which continues to face resistance from some corners of Capitol Hill. The House Appropriations Committee in July recommended against funding the project in 2012.