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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The ORS office isn’t trying to invent spacecraft so advanced they can spot dandruff on a terrorist’s shoulders or so capable they can eavesdrop on underground bunkers. ORS is about process—perhaps the most yawn-inducing word in the English language. For a certain class of small spacecraft, ORS wants to replace the traditional, multi-year, customized process of spacecraft development with one that enables near-instant gratification.

The speed will depend on the nature of the need. The ORS office would like to be able to reconfigure spacecraft or instruments already in orbit within hours of a commander’s call for help—a capability they call Tier 1; launch new, cookie-cutter spacecraft within a week (Tier 2); or build and launch a customized spacecraft within a year (Tier 3).

None of those jobs is easy, says Wegner, a 42-year-old civilian with close-cropped hair and a salt-and-pepper goatee. The 60 people on his team are mostly engineers and scientists, plus a handful of administrators and contracting specialists. Budgets have been tiny by national security space standards—$111.5 million in 2012, down from $134 million in 2010, and a fraction of the $64 billion the U.S. government spent on space that year. Of course, the satellites conceived at Kirtland are supposed to cost less. But the team spends more time working out strategies than launching actual quicksats into space to demonstrate that it can be done.

ORS-1, which got the go-ahead in October 2008, was supposed to be that hardware. The idea was to put a U-2 spyplane sensor—a SYERS-2 multi-spectral camera—on a half-ton satellite. Goodrich Corporation, which makes the U-2 sensor, had pitched the idea, according to Charlie Cox, the company’s special projects director. ATK would build the satellite bus. The aim was to finish the spacecraft in two years, as opposed to the three to five years a typical program needed.

The team shipped the ORS-1 spacecraft to the Wallops Island, Virginia launch site in 30 months and launched on June 29, 2011—not quite rapid response, but faster than most procurement cycles. The total cost: $229 million, including launch and two years of operations.

Standardization and simplification helped to shorten the production cycle. The ORS-1 team developed a one-size-fits-all payload interface, and modified the conventional U-2 ground receiving system so a new one didn’t have to be designed from scratch. To operators in U.S. Central Command, the satellite camera works very much like the airborne sensor, Wegner says. The team also saved time by skipping certain tests, or running them concurrently instead of in sequence.

Mostly, though, what accelerated the program were changes in behavior. Typically, satellite buyers specify what they want, then make sure the contractor delivers. With ORS-1, the customer got whatever the satellite could provide. Pace, not perfection, was paramount. Technical reviews were cut way back. The ORS office told military organizations accustomed to exerting control over bigsat development to back off. “I don’t have time,” Wegner told them. “I don’t have the budget.”

Meanwhile, the ORS team was very hands-on with the contractor. Rather than popping in for occasional reviews, they resided at ATK full-time, building trust and speeding up decisions. With ATK and the program officials working side by side, it was easier to resolve such matters as how to handle contracts and security.

ORS-1, if not a true ORS spacecraft, was at least a beginning. And according to General William Shelton, who heads Air Force Space Command, field officers were pleased with the imagery it returned. “It was a war-fighting advantage, no question,” he testified to Congress in March.

Now Wegner’s office is focusing on a program called T2E, which stands for “Tier 2 Enabler.” The roughly $200 million mission, also known as ORS-2, kicked off in December 2010. With T2E, the office aims to design and build a modular radar-surveillance spacecraft that can be placed on the shelf, waiting for a battlefield commander’s call. When it comes, Wegner will start the clock; a week later, T2E will be in space. That’s the idea, at least.

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