Space Development Agency aims to issue first RFI this summer

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COLORADO SPRINGS — The Pentagon’s brand-new Space Development Agency intends to make a formal request for information from megaconstellation ventures and their vendors this summer. 

Space Development Agency Director Fred Kennedy started working with such ventures when he was running Blackjack, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency effort to buy small satellites from the same vendors supplying megaconstellations like OneWeb.

His intent today is largely the same as it was back then: find a way for the U.S. military to leverage the industrial capacity that private capital is creating to build and launch hundreds or thousands of small satellites to low Earth orbit on an evolving mix of commercial launch vehicles. 

The key difference: as the head of SDA, Kennedy has been invested by the Office of the Secretary of Defense with the authorities he needs to put operational capabilities — not just tech demos — on orbit.

And he intends to move fast. Kennedy wants SDA’s first satellites on orbit in 2022 “This is not DARPA,” he said during a freewheeling 90-minute discussion with reporters here April 10. “I will do demonstrations to make sure that I’m ready to go, but I intend to put real hardware on orbit that does real work.”

Kennedy, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who earned his PhD at the University of Surrey — home of smallsat pioneers Surrey Satellite — outlined a bold vision this week for using large constellations of small satellites to take over military space missions ranging from missile tracking and reconnaissance to communications and navigation.

But for now, Kennedy has more ambition than budget, or staff. While the Pentagon requested $150 million for fiscal year 2020,   he’s counting on Congress to approve a reprogramming request this year that would allow him to expand SDA beyond its current staff of one detailee and several support contractors

Kennedy’s singular focus between now and the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year is to refine a LEO-based architecture that aligns with the so-called space sensor layer of missile-tracking satellites that Undersecretary of Defense Mike Griffin — his boss and longtime colleague — sees as critical to countering China’s hypersonic missile threat. 

“I need to refine the architecture…and I need to do that in a way that I can show it to Dr. Griffin and the acting [Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan] and say, ‘this is what I intend to acquire and I intend to put capability up in orbit in 2022, so I need people now and I need resources now.’ And the good news  is they get it and this is a priority for them. So I think one way or the other, its going to happen.”

Assuming SDA gets its funding, Kennedy intends to hit the ground running come October. To do that, SDA plans to issue a request for information, or RFI, this summer, probably in July, followed by a draft solicitation by Sept. 30.

“Once I do one or two spins on the architecture, and that’ll probably happen this summer, I would like to get an RFI out because I want to be able to calibrate, sanity check, what we’ve come up with against what commercial thinks is feasible,” Kennedy said.

“And then at some point later on, we’ll want to make sure that we get a draft RFP out, or equivalent solicitation — probably near the end of the fiscal year — or at least be ready to do it, depending on where the budget is, and where Congress is.”

Kennedy declined to discuss the specific focus or details of the planned RFI. 

“We’re well aware of the capabilities of all the major megas,” he said, referring to large constellations of the sort OneWeb, SpaceX, Amazon and others are developing for global broadband and other uses. “[E]xactly how they fit, exactly how we fit, we don’t quite know yet. In fact, that’s part of the refinement of the architecture activity.”

Kennedy said SDA is also paying close attention to the smallsat capabilities put forward by traditional contractors such as Lockheed Martin, currently building the bulk  of U.S. military satellites. “We are working with all of our legacy providers as well,”  he said.

Wanted: cheap phased array antennas

To realize Kennedy’s vision, SDA will need more than just mass-produced spacecraft platforms, or buses. “It’s not just about bus hardware, right? It’s about payload hardware. It’s about user terminals. Can anyone find me somebody who can build me a phased array antenna cheap?”

When a reporter noted that OneWeb founder Greg Wyler recently claimed one of his self-funded side projects has developed an antenna module that costs $15 and paves the way for user terminals priced between $200 and $300, Kennedy expressed skepticism.

“Everybody else says it’s pretty expensive,” he said. “I would love to have that [cheap] phased array antenna. I’d love to be able to mount that thing on a Humvee. I’d love to have it on every dismount’s backpack. 

“I don’t believe we’re there, but I do believe that if you, if you push forward in a way that you put capability out every couple of years and you collaborate with commercial [providers], you will get there more quickly than if you establish a government program and say, ‘Oh, you know, maybe 10 or 12 years from now, will we get a phased array antenna.’”