”Customers that want to use our vehicle are coming out of the woodwork. People are joining the consortium like you would not believe.” — Lt. Gen. John Thompson, speaking at the Air Force Association's Air, Space & Cyber conference Sept. 18, 2018. Credit: U.S. Air Force

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 8, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

When the Missile Defense Agency needed design concepts for a space-based sensor layer, it relied on a relatively new Air Force-funded organization to get the money into contractors hands faster than it could have done itself. Since it was stood up a year ago, the Air Force-led Space Enterprise Consortium has seen rapid growth in industry participation and in funding.

The consortium has roughly 200 members that include small and large businesses, nonprofit organizations and academic research institutions that compete for contracts, typically for designs of new concepts or advanced prototypes. The Defense Department in recent years set up similar consortiums in areas including munitions, cybersecurity and rotary aviation. The Space Enterprise Consortium was formed in November in response to demands for faster innovation in military space programs. Companies apply for membership online and pay yearly dues that start at $500 for small business and go up for larger firms.

The consortium provides an acquisition vehicle for everything from spacecraft, launch vehicles and ground systems. If a defense organization needs something developed fast, it can turn to the consortium and get a project completed in months, as opposed to years under the traditional Pentagon procurement process.

Initially, the consortium had a $100 million ceiling for projects but that topline has been increased to $500 million. The Air Force wanted to “partner with non-traditionals, partner with new entrants in the space business, partner with small and large entities across the space community to try and prototype, experiment and demonstrate faster with capabilities,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, said at an industry conference in September. “By the end of the year, we’ll have between $150 million to $200 million awarded,” Thompson said. “Customers that want to use our vehicle are coming out of the woodwork. People are joining the consortium like you would not believe in order to be part of this effort. … And we’ve got a lot of plans to take this Space Enterprise Consortium even further.”

Thompson said he has been impressed by the speed of business. “Ninety days to award contracts,” he said. “We’ve gotten a couple of them done in as short as 80 days and we’re looking to make it better and faster as we go forward.”

Projects awarded by the consortium so far include a microsatellite for experiments in geostationary Earth orbit, concept designs for a missile defense tracking system (now known as Space Sensor Layer), protected tactical satellite communications prototypes and a future ground architecture for missile-warning satellites.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has been a proponent of industry consortiums to manage research-and-development projects and to attract startups and small businesses that typically do not work with the U.S. government. “That way they can ‘spin on’ technology but not have to deal with audits and contracts that are 600 pages long,” Wilson said. “We are trying to change how we work with industry.”

The Space Enterprise Consortium, like the other industry consortiums the Defense Department has funded in recent years, is managed by Advanced Technology International (ATI), a Summerville, South Carolina-based company specialized in organizing groups of researchers to tackle technology problems for government agencies. The $100 million contract ATI received from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in November to establish and manage the Space Enterprise Consortium came soon after ATI was selected by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to lead the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), a program focused on robotic in-orbit servicing of satellites. ATI was established in 1998 and acquired in 2017 by ANSER, the Falls Church, Virginia-based not-for-profit research firm.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...