WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is contemplating an expanded role for the rapid-response space development shop it proposed shuttering as recently as last year, but the service has yet to identify how it plans to fund the office beyond next year.
Maj. Gen. Marty Whelan, director of space operations for the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff, said the service is considering having the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office take the lead in developing next-generation replacements for satellites currently used for space surveillance and weather monitoring.
Whelan spoke with reporters here Feb. 6, four days after the Air Force released a 2016 budget request that includes $6.5 million for the ORS Office. That office was created to develop and deploy space capabilities to plug gaps or address emerging military needs.
Budget documents also indicate that the ORS Office’s next mission, which had been slated to launch this past January from Hawaii on a new rocket, has been delayed until next year.
According to the documents, a portion of the funding sought for next year would go toward supporting the ORS-1 satellite, which launched in 2011 and circles the globe every 90 minutes to provide visible and infrared imagery to U.S. forces operating in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Other priorities listed in the documents include work on an ORS-2 satellite, which is expected to carry a radar sensor for ground reconnaissance, and ORS-5, intended to demonstrate space surveillance technologies. The ORS-2 and ORS-5 activities are budgeted at $655,000 and $3.5 million, respectively, in 2016.
“What we’re doing now is an evaluation of other satellite programs that can be housed in the ORS Office,” Whelan said. The options he cited are a follow-on to the Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) Block 10 satellite and the Defense Weather Follow-on satellite.
The Air Force spent the past year defining a follow-on for SBSS Block 10, which operates in low Earth orbit and keeps tabs on objects in geosynchronous orbit. The Air Force now envisions a system of three smaller satellites in low orbits that could draw on technologies developed for the experimental ORS-5 craft.
The Defense Weather Follow-on system, which will replace the Air Force’s venerable Defense Meteorological Satellite System spacecraft, would consist of a single satellite carrying two or three instruments and would launch in 2021 or 2022.
Whelan said a decision to move those programs to the ORS Office is expected this spring.
But even as it contemplates giving the office more responsibility, it has not identified the funding to go along with that. The budget documents do not include anticipated funding requirements for the office beyond 2016.
A cloud of uncertainty has hung over the ORS Office since 2010, when the Air Force proposed rolling back its nearly $125 million annual budget to $94 million, with further reductions planned. In its 2013, 2014 and 2015 budget requests, the Air Force proposed shutting down the office, located at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, and folding ORS concepts into other military space programs.
Congress has pushed back each time, however, providing the funding necessary keep to the office in business.
In the ORS-related part of its budget request documents, the Air Force said the ORS Office’s focus on the “successful integration of space-based capabilities into the core of U.S. national security operations has resulted in dramatically increased demand for and dependence upon space capabilities.”
Meanwhile, the first flight of an experimental low-cost launch system for small satellites and based in Hawaii has been delayed to mid-2016. The launch of the ORS-4 mission aboard the rail-launched Super Strypi rocket, originally scheduled for October 2013, previously had been delayed to November 2014, and then to January 2015.
The most recent delay, budget documents said, was due to “first stage motor complications.” Those issues are not expected to be resolved until 2016, the budget documents said.
Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, is providing the rocket motors for the launch and is responsible for overall integration of the vehicle.
The company referred questions to the Air Force.