Hurry-Up Satellites

These Pentagon mavericks want to launch spacecraft within a week of taking the order. Wish them luck.

TacSat-2 launching in 2006. (NASA)
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In June 2005, Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy was hunting down a Taliban leader in the mountains of Afghanistan when enemy bullets tore into the rocky crags around his Navy SEAL team. Forced into a ravine, they fought back, but they needed help. The surrounding ridges blocked their access to the geosynchronous satellite used to communicate with base. Murphy climbed to open terrain to get a better line of sight.

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The call went through. But it cost him his life.

Could a different type of satellite—tailor-made for the particular demands of soldiers fighting in the Afghan mountains—have saved him from being gunned down? Peter Wegner thinks so.

Wegner directs the U.S. military’s Operationally Responsive Space office at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. For the last five years, ORS has focused on building and launching small, cheap spacecraft on seemingly impossible schedules—within days or weeks of a sudden request, rather than the years it takes now. The office was instrumental in launching the Navy’s TacSat-4 spacecraft, which rose into an Alaskan sunrise on September 27, 2011, and now carries a radio on a roller-coaster of an orbit, enabling communications in valleys where the sun hardly shines—the kind of place where Michael Murphy was killed.

In five years, however, Wegner’s office has launched only one satellite that it can truly call its own, and now, having been zeroed out of the Pentagon budget for next year, is fighting for its political life. Congress may restore funding, but if it doesn’t, the office will close at the end of September, bringing the quicksat revolution—or at least this particular attempt to bring it about—to a premature end.

Quick-launch spacecraft are not impossible. In 1982, the Soviet Union, wanting to spy on the Falklands War from space, launched 29 satellites in 69 days. “It’s something the U.S. couldn’t do then and couldn’t do now,” says James Wertz, president of Microcosm Inc. in Hawthorne, California, and founder of a long-running series of conferences on responsiveness in space.

Massive spacecraft with big solar panels, antennas, and sensors can, of course, do things that smaller birds can’t. But they take years to develop, and if something breaks, years to replace. As mass grows, so does cost, says Lieutenant Colonel George Nagy, who leads Air Force Space Command’s operationally responsive space division at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado. “Someone designing a Boeing 787 will tell you the same thing,” he says. So will the architects of the Pentagon’s perpetually delayed Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), who are placing a network of multi-ton early-warning satellites in orbit, for a price tag that has ballooned from $4 billion to $17 billion.

The idea of ORS originated within the Pentagon a decade ago, early in the war against terrorism. Suddenly there was a new class of customers for satellite data: officers too low in the food chain to be trusted with the keys to billion-dollar giants. In May 2007, the ORS office opened with a mandate from Congress to make satellites more responsive to the immediate needs of battlefield commanders.

The ORS office at Kirtland is beige with brown trim, like every other building on base. It’s the size of a small-town community center, but here, if you lack security clearance, strobe lights flash in the hall. The street dead-ends at a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, beyond which the seemingly infinite flightline spreads. Somewhere, helicopter blades beat the air.

In a conference room of another, smaller building, posters with titles like “Space-Based Plug & Play” are on display alongside an unerased whiteboard, a worn laser printer, and a leftover placard from the office’s debut. During my visit last fall, this is where Wegner and his colleagues explained what they’re hoping to do.

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