— The U.S. Defense Department’s intentional destruction of one of its own spy satellites in February was a major event by any measure, but for the broader
national security space program, 2008 might best be remembered for the things that did not take place.
The classified spy satellite, which had failed shortly after launch, was shot down by a U.S. Navy missile interceptor as it hurtled out of control toward an atmospheric re-entry.
government officials said the shootdown was necessary to prevent the satellite’s highly toxic hydrazine fuel from posing a threat on the ground, but critics suggested it was a thinly veiled demonstration of an anti-satellite capability.
That extraordinary event aside, 2008 was a year in which the Defense Department struggled with comparatively routine tasks such as launching satellites and getting new systems under contract.
One key example is the next-generation Transformation Satellite (T-Sat) communications system. The U.S. Air Force, having spent more than $1 billion on T-Sat design and risk-reduction studies, was poised to award a multibillion-dollar development contract this year to either Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., or Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif. But the Pentagon now is rethinking its requirements, leaving the program in limbo.
T-Sat was one of two so-called transformational space capabilities envisioned for the Pentagon under the outgoing administration. The other was Space Radar, a joint Air Force-National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) program that was terminated earlier this year amid cost concerns and the inability of the two camps to settle on requirements.
The story was much the same for another Air Force-NRO effort, the Broad Area Space-based Imagery Collector program, which featured the planned procurement of two commercial-class imaging satellites and associated ground systems. The military and intelligence community wrangled for much of the year over program control and implementation, while some questioned its compliance with the
policy requiring government agencies to rely on commercial remote sensing capabilities wherever practical. Congress declined to fund the program’s space segment in the 2009 defense appropriations bill.
It was a tough year as well for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, whose Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets are relied upon to loft the majority of
national security space payloads. While prime contractor United Launch Alliance of Denver has a streak of 21 government EELV launches without a failure, the billion-dollar-plus program notched only one mission this year after five in 2007.
According to U.S. Federal Aviation Administration launch manifests, there were six EELV launches scheduled for 2008 that did not take place. They would have placed weather, communications and classified satellites into orbit.
Julie Andrews, a spokeswoman for United Launch Alliance, said the technical and testing issues that grounded the fleet for most of the year should be cleared up in time to launch an NRO payload aboard a heavy-lift Delta 4 rocket in January. The company hopes to break the logjam next year, with 10 EELV launches planned, the maximum number possible under current constraints.
2008 also saw the on-orbit failure of a Defense Support Program missile warning satellite. The failure came on top of Lockheed Martin’s continued struggles with the replacement missile warning system, dubbed the Space Based Infrared System, which has a long history of delays and cost growth. Pentagon officials now are concerned about a potential gap in missile warning coverage and are planning to procure a different missile warning satellite to head off that possibility.
There were positive developments during the year, notably in the Pentagon’s efforts to find new ways of fielding space capabilities. The Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space office, for example, was tasked by U.S. Central Command to build its first operational satellite. It will attempt to put the satellite, now under contract, in orbit in two years or less, a time frame the office’s director, Peter Wegner, hopes to reduce to just one year on future programs.
The Pentagon also advanced its budding partnership with commercial satellite operators when it awarded a contract to SES Americom of
, to host an experimental missile warning payload on an upcoming communications satellite. The deal follows an earlier one in which a military Internet router experiment will launch in 2009 aboard an Intelsat satellite, and suggests that the Pentagon is growing more comfortable with the so-called hosted payloads concept.
Other commercial operators have taken notice, most notably Iridium Satellite LLC of Bethesda, Md. Iridium intends to set aside space for hosted payloads aboard the satellites in its planned next-generation communications constellation.
The Defense Department also moved forward on its next generation of navigation and positioning satellites with the May award of the GPS 3 development contract to Lockheed Martin, a $1.5 billion deal that covers the first two spacecraft. The competition for the GPS 3 ground segment still is pending.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Jim Armor, former head of the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office, called the inability to reach agreements and make decisions on T-Sat, Space Radar and the Broad Area Space-based Imagery Collector programs a failure on the part of the military, intelligence community and Congress.
More than anything else, 2008 was a year for reflection, Armor said. With a new presidential administration coming in, there is a tremendous opportunity to make improvements and put into effect the recommendations of numerous studies released this year on national security space policy and management. “I’m actually very optimistic,” Armor said. “Hope springs eternal.”