During the last few years, a quiet revolution has been taking place in the space industry. Under the guidance of the U.S. Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, the industry has laid the groundwork for a new way of acquiring and fielding space assets to quickly meet near-term tactical requirements.
It’s a trend that our government leaders should be paying attention to.
While production cycles for space assets generally are measured in years, and costs regularly climb into the hundreds of millions of dollars, the responsive space initiative is showing that, for many missions, those cost and schedule parameters can be drastically reduced.
One example of success in this area is TacSat-3, an experimental satellite built within extremely tight budget and time constraints under the management of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. Launched in 2009, TacSat-3 has now been deployed in an operational capacity by U.S. Strategic Command. With its first-of-a-kind hyperspectral imaging sensor able to distinguish between various man-made and natural materials, the satellite brings a fundamentally new capability to the Department of Defense (DoD). That’s quite an accomplishment — and it’s just one example among many.
Across industry, payloads are being designed with built-in modularity for multiple applications, new spacecraft feature standard interfaces for easy payload integration, and innovative launch vehicles are being tested, all of which will greatly reduce cost and improve access to space.
These developments could not come at a better time. As the government seeks to find taxpayer savings in a sluggish economy, we must collectively find ways to “do more without more,” as the Defense Department’s chief acquisition officer, Ashton Carter, has put it.
In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Carter cited the DoD’s cancellation of “unnecessary” military programs as a first step, with the admonition, “Now we must find savings within programs and activities we do need.” The advances made in responsive space should allow our industry to do just that.
To keep up the momentum, industry must continue to demonstrate its value to government by investing in technology and processes that advance the responsive space vision of rapidly deployable assets.
For its part, government must support these efforts, by channeling traditional funding to new ORS initiatives and working directly with industry to meet emerging requirements through these types of innovative solutions. With the experience available in industry today, government can look to responsive space solutions for filling gaps in existing capabilities and constellations, for cost-effective requirements maturation, and for achieving technology insertion and obsolescence avoidance within the current space architecture.
For all the success our industry has had in fielding and proving out the military merits of smaller, less-expensive space assets, there is still a final step to be taken. By transitioning successful experimental missions to operational systems, government can take advantage of the demonstrated cost and schedule savings these systems can bring.
As overall satellite and payload costs decrease, we have the opportunity to look at space systems with more of a product-line mentality, similar to the approach taken by our counterparts in the airborne business. Military leaders could field constellations of smaller, more nimble satellites for the cost of one or two traditional systems. This in turn would allow for the realization of economies of scale associated with building multiple payloads based on a common design, rather than one-off, built-from-scratch systems.
This approach not only will seed the cost-effective fielding of required new capabilities, it will support a nascent transformation of the space industry and help keep the good ideas coming. In that way, we can be confident that we are all doing what we can to do more without more.
Bill Hart is vice president, space systems, for Raytheon Co.’s Space and Airborne Systems business. Raytheon built the Advanced Responsive Tactically Effective Military Imaging Spectrometer (ARTEMIS) hyperspectral imaging sensor flown aboard TacSat-3.