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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For spacecraft-in-a-week to happen, most of the work has to be done in advance—sometimes well in advance. One reason, says Wagner, is that the fabrication of some satellite components just can’t be rushed. Radios, for example, use crystal oscillators tuned to different frequencies, and the crystals can take months to grow. “There’s not a lot you can do” to speed up the process, he says, which is why the trick to rapid-response spacecraft increasingly looks to be storing key components ahead of time.

The ORS office envisions two basic types of plug-and-play spacecraft: one for reconnaissance sensors (visible, infrared, radar—it doesn’t matter) and another for communications. The goal is to have payloads plug into the spacecraft bus in the same way that printers, cameras, and thumb drives plug into a computer’s USB ports. The ORS team also plans to make the satellite body itself modular, using aluminum panels of standard shape and size. Wallis Laughrey, director of advanced concepts for space and directed-energy systems at Northrop Grumman, which is building the T2E bus, says this alone can shave months off the build time.

The ORS program’s sole bit of industrial infrastructure is its Rapid Response Space Center, nicknamed Chile Works (a nod to Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works and the local delicacy). A short walk from the ORS office, it’s Lilliputian by aerospace standards—roughly 1,300 square feet of a converted hangar. Inside a glassed-in clean room is a hexagonal mockup of T2E, its body panels the color of brass, and a facsimile of a synthetic aperture radar made of gray-painted wood and aluminum tubes. Everything here—from the desk chairs to the clean-room enclosure itself—is on wheels for quick reconfiguration.

Reconfiguring is, unfortunately, something the ORS team is all too familiar with these days. There’s no guarantee now that T2E will even fly. The Department of Defense budget request for 2013, released in February, eliminated the office, instead giving a few million dollars here and there to larger projects like the SBIRS missile warning satellites to incorporate the lessons learned from ORS. “The concept of ORS is not going away,” Shelton insisted at a Congressional hearing. “It’s just that we won’t have a dedicated office.”

While the ORS faithful hope Congress will restore funding (a few lawmakers stuck up for the program during the hearing), they concede that’s a long shot. They’ve always known that their aim of speeding up spacecraft development is “an affront to many,” as Wegner puts it. If they seem like rebels or cowboys, he adds, “it’s just that we really, truly believe that some of these kinds of capabilities can be built pretty quickly and pretty inexpensively and can save lives.”

Brigadier General Kevin McLaughlin started the ORS office, and is now director of space operations for the Air Force in Washington. He thinks that dividing the program’s objectives into three tiers—all of them challenging—caused political problems. “To be honest, I think what has hurt the program has been that lack of objective at senior levels.”

The lack of hard results has been another mark against ORS. While unmanned aerial vehicles and other new tools were proving themselves on the battlefield daily, ORS spent a lot of time thinking through procedures. Even though “they’ve stretched not much money a long way,” says McLaughlin, it was never clear whether the office “should start doing these Tier 1-2-3 tasks the next day, or whether this was a 20-year journey.”

To realize savings down the line, the ORS concept requires up-front investment—never an easy sell in times of tight budgets. Millions of dollars’ worth of plug-and-play sensors, radars, radios, and other equipment will have to be stockpiled—and wait months or years on shelves in Albuquerque. Right now, “the government doesn’t have the stomach for things on a shelf,” says Brendan Regan, ATK’s vice president for space mission systems.

But there remains a need for what ORS is selling, says Colonel Carol Welsch, acting director of the Air Force space development and test directorate. The imperiled program shows promise not only in making short-order satellites possible, she says, but also in moving new technology from the lab to the battlefield more quickly. “If [ORS] went away,” asks Welsch, “will there be some other way we could do that?”

Todd Neff is a Denver writer and author of From Jars to the Stars: How Ball Came to Build a Comet-Hunting Machine (Earthview Media, 2010).

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