Air Force Secretary Laments Slow Pace of Space Technology Development (UPDATED)

By Stew Magnuson

Photo: Virgin Orbit

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson praised the innovation she sees in the commercial space industry while also lamenting that the service is not able to integrate these new technologies into its own programs fast enough.

“There are going to be more and more things that we spin on from innovation in the commercial [space] sector onto the national security sector,” she said Jan. 5 at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon in Arlington, Virginia.

The question is how can the Air Force “spin on” these technologies — whether or not they have to do with space — into programs of record. It can’t only be a requirements pull, or a technology push. It has to flow both ways, she said.

“I don’t think we are set up that well to allow that to rapidly happen now,” she said.

Wilson singled out several of the so-called “new space” companies that are producing innovative technologies the Air Force might find useful. She recently toured the Virgin Orbit facility in California where the company is planning to loft spacecraft from 747s at about $5 million per launch. That gives customers “tremendous flexibility,” she said. [A company spokesman said early test flights sold for $5 million. However future flights will be closer to $12 million.]

Relativity Space, another California-based company, is 3D-printing rocket engines with fewer than 100 components as opposed to traditional engines with 100,000 individual pieces. It can customize and build an engine in days rather than months, she noted.

Meanwhile, Planet has produced more than 100 small satellites the size of a shoebox that are imaging the Earth’s landmasses twice per day. It can produce about 20 of the spacecraft per week, and is already selling its data to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, she added.

“Not all of these companies are going to succeed, but not all of them have to succeed if we are to open the next revolution and generation of space," Wilson said.

However, a lot of these companies don’t want to work with the Air Force because of the acquisition bureaucracy, she noted. “There are ways we are trying to work with industry,” she said.

To get at that problem, Air Force Space and Missile Center has $100 million over five years to spend on its Space Enterprise Consortium, she said. The money is intended for small companies with innovative ideas that don’t want to deal with the acquisition bureaucracy.

The Air Force announced in November that Advanced Technology International will administer the program over its five-year span. It uses “other transaction authorities,” a process that allows companies to build prototypes outside of traditional Defense Department regulations.

“Our adversaries are certainly watching what we are doing,” she said. China for the first time launched more rockets than Russia in 2016, she noted. They understand how dependent the U.S. military is on space assets, she added.

The Air Force is creating a common operating picture in space, strengthening its command and control there and building its ability to carry out deterrence and defensive operations in that realm, she said.

“We have to be prepared to fight and prevail in any conflict that extends into space,” she added. “Part of having a resilient space network — particularly in things like communication — is to leverage what is going on in commercial industry."

Meanwhile, Wilson addressed controversial language in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 that would prevent the Air Force from participating in a new space advocate position, shifting much of its current responsibility to the assistant secretary of defense. The legislation came from lawmakers who believe that the Air Force lords over a “broken national space enterprise,” according to the NDAA conference report.

“We will comply with the law, but there is a lot of different ways to do it,” Wilson said. The Air Force still has to do planning, strategy and budgeting for 80 percent of the military’s space enterprise, she noted. “The work is still there. It is just a question of how we do it and how we assign people to do it.”

Clarification: Updated story clarifies the cost of Virgin Orbit launches.

Topics: Research and Development, Procurement, Air Force News, Space

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