With 215 people and a $190 million budget, the Space Development and Test Wing is small by Air Force standards. But its gung-ho culture makes it ideal for acting as the “connective tissue” between scientists and acquisitions commands, says Col. Kevin McLaughlin, commander of the wing and director of the operationally responsive space office at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
“We have the same competencies that those large wings do. We’re just building smaller things that are more of a leading-edge technology,” he explains.
One of his initiatives is to provide increasingly rapid and low-cost access to space via the wing’s launch and satellite operations.
In March, a mission called Space Test Program One launched and carried a secondary payload adapter technology into orbit. Called the ESPA ring, the technology allows up to six microsatellites to fit on a piece of metal that sits in between the primary payload and its rocket.
“It’s a way to get free launches for small experiments that otherwise have trouble paying to get up to orbit,” says McLaughlin.
The wing is also in the process of acquiring a key piece of technology integral to the ESPA ring. The standard interface vehicle, a bus which sustains a satellite’s operations with solar power, attitude control and communications system, enables a small payload to be integrated on board quickly and inexpensively.
“Those things are going to reduce the barrier of entry for smaller entities that in many cases are quite innovative. They can get their products up into orbit to see how they work, whereas before, they never could afford to fly,” says McLaughlin.
The Space Test Group has a program that uses retired intercontinental ballistic missile rocket motors for launching research and development space systems, says Col. Samuel McCraw, commander of the group.
“We launch satellites into space cheaper than anybody else in the world can do,” says McLaughlin.
In December, the wing used a Minotaur I space launch vehicle based upon old Minuteman ICBM motors, to send the experimental satellite, TacSat-2, into orbit from Wallops Island, Va.
The group also is working to reduce the time it takes to integrate a space system to a launch vehicle.
“We’re standardizing our rocket interfaces, so when you show up with a new satellite, we have a standardized interface that allows you to integrate on that rocket,” says McCraw.
The operationally responsive space program is a key part of these initiatives, says McLaughlin.
The president’s budget allots $408 million for ORS during the next five years — with $87 million arriving in the fall.
The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are driving part of the initiative to provide cheaper and faster ways of delivering capabilities to fighters on the ground, he says. Using experimental space systems or technology demonstrations was unheard of in the past, but combatant commanders want to tap into those capabilities.
“Since we fly that satellite, we’re having to figure out how to take these science and technology systems and rapidly migrate them over to a state where they’re actually supporting operations,” says McLaughlin.
The space test program, which oversees the Defense Department’s space experiments aboard the space shuttle and international space station, will expand its responsibilities and begin conducting advanced technology test demonstrations in support of Space Missile Command’s acquisitions, says McLaughlin.
For example, if the Defense Department wants to develop a new generation of infrared detecting satellites, it will rely on the wing to build the key technologies and demonstrate them in space.
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