Air Force Embraces Small Satellites As Budget Outlook Grows Dim

By Stew Magnuson
Building, launching and supporting space-based systems is one of the most expensive tasks the U.S military and intelligence communities undertake.

With the federal budget expected to shrink in the coming years, Air Force officials said they are already looking at ways to maintain the capabilities they must deliver to the armed services.

“We’re not going to be relieved of our requirements even as our budget goes down,” said Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The command must deliver an array of services to the armed forces including GPS, communications, weather satellites and space-based sensors. The area of operations it must monitor — the beginnings of space some 100 miles above the Earth’s surface up to where the highest satellites orbit about 24,000 miles is about 73 trillion cubic miles, Shelton said. “There is no question that there will be more demand for these capabilities, not less,” he added.

“Disaggregation” is the key, Shelton said. Smaller satellites launched more frequently and that are less expensive to build and launch is the trend.

The roots of this way of doing business began long before the recent calls for decreases in government spending. Both the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds the nation’s spy satellites, had reputations for delivering spacecraft that were late and over budget. Afterwards, these large satellites would stay on orbit for a decade or longer as their technologies quickly became outdated.

To get a handle on requirements that shifted during a satellite’s development, resulting in late delivery times and cost overruns, former Undersecretary for the Air Force Ronald Sega in the middle of the last decade instituted a “block buy” approach to ensure that satellite fleets would maintain a tighter schedule. Program managers would do this by inserting new technologies into each spacecraft only when they were deemed fully mature. They did have to wait for every requirement to be filled before the first spacecraft in a new series was sent aloft.

About the same time, a concept called operationally responsive space began to gain more attention. An ORS division under the auspices of the office of the secretary of defense was set up in 2007 at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. The concept called for smaller satellites that could be quickly built and launched in order to quickly answer the needs of battlefield commanders.

While operationally responsive space didn’t originally have “low cost” as an imperative, it is now a selling point.

Is that the answer to the budget predicament?

There are several ways for the command to accomplish cost savings, Shelton said. Hosted payloads, where military sensor, communications or other technologies piggyback on commercial satellites are one option. Leveraging the services these private companies offer or carrying out joint programs with allies are others.

But smaller satellites are also an option, he said.

“Can we distribute sensors and network them together so we have smaller satellites …  but [they] give you adequate capability when they are networked together?” he asked.

Smaller spacecraft could also mean smaller rockets and, therefore, lower launch costs. Sending large satellites into orbit on the workhorse Atlas 5 rocket can cost anywhere from $102 million to $334 million per trip, according to industry publication Space News.

One way to lower the cost of satellite procurement is to change the way Congress appropriates the money, said Doug Loverro, executive director of the Air Force Space Command’s space and missile systems center at Los Angeles Air Force Base.

There is a proposal that the Air Force supports which is being discussed in the House Armed Services Committee called evolutionary acquisition for space efficiency, or EASE.

Instead of determining the cost of procuring a satellite over a five-year period, and dividing its budget equally into fifths, then hoping there is enough money to finish the project in the final years, the Air Force would ask only for the funding needed in each fiscal year, Loverro told reporters in a phone interview.  

That is the practice for developmental satellites since program managers don’t know when they will reach the end of the project. It is not the practice for the acquisition of fully developed spacecraft that need to be produced as part of a fleet, or constellation in space industry parlance.

“In the past we would have bought them one at a time, and we would have paid a very high premium for them. We would not have been able to group together parts buys, share production labor. We wouldn’t have been able to create synergy during the integration and test” phases, he said.

Single year procurement, which allows satellites to be incrementally funded, could save 10 percent or more for each spacecraft, Loverro said.

“I think we are very focused on creating the acquisition strategies and the program strategies in order to achieve the cost savings we need, but not give up the capability,” Loverro said, but added that it is challenging to do this in the early development phases of complex satellites.

One program is showing the community how smaller satellites can be developed more quickly and efficiently. When the Air Force starts developing a new satellite, it normally begins with the payload it wants to deliver to orbit, then figures out what power, fuel and other specifications it will need to support the mission.

That usually requires the manufacturing of a whole new bus, which is the infrastructure that supports the spacecraft. The service’s Space Test Program Standard Interface Vehicle (STP-SIV) has taken the opposite approach. It has developed a standardized bus and the payloads must instead conform to it.

That greatly reduces the amount of time it takes to create a satellite from scratch, Col. Carol P. Welsch, commander of the space development group at the Air Force’s space development and directorate wing at Kirtland, told reporters at the conference. Once the call goes out, parts can be taken “off the shelf” and a bus constructed in about 60 days. In the past, the Air Force would have asked its contractors to make a whole new spacecraft, and the process could take years.

As the Air Force looks for ways to become more cost effective, programs like STP are designed to meet that need, she said. “Not having to do recurring engineering every time we build a satellite is of tremendous value,” Welsch said.

The new vehicle is intended for experimental payloads only. The service has a list of 73 capabilities it would like to send into orbit to verify their utility and effectiveness in a space environment. The first spacecraft sent up in November had two such payloads. The second does not have a spot on a launch vehicle yet, Welsch said.

The Air Force has been pushing for a more operationally responsive space infrastructure where needs can be filled in a matter of months rather than years.

The STP vehicle could be adapted for such a concept, she said. If a communication satellite were to cease operations, for example, a replacement could be sent up quickly as long as the payload is in the 60- to 70-kilogram range.

Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., the contractor that developed the satellite, would like to see the program expand.

“I see it as fulfilling the problem of responsive space,” said David Kaufman, the senior program manager at Ball. The second spacecraft beat the 60-day construction requirement, he noted. It was put together in 47 days, and its three payloads integrated in about four days.

The key is that those who are developing the payloads have to make tradeoffs to fit the bus, Welsch said.

But to have operationally responsive space, the second part of the equation is launch. That has not been solved yet, as the manifest for the STP program shows. The crowded launch facilities the Air Force uses and budget constraints means that there is no firm date for when the second STP-SIV spacecraft will go to orbit.

Peter Wegner, director of the operationally responsive space office, said he is happy to see concepts such as the STP-SIV program being embraced by the Air Force’s larger space community.

Hosted payloads are another example. “In many ways, that’s an ORS concept. I don’t think ORS has to own all of those. I think it’s great how the whole community is thinking about how you do that and how that adds robustness to our architecture.”

As for reducing the cost of launch — a long-standing goal of the space community — Loverro said Space Command is answering the call to reduce the price tag of rockets by making more stable buys. The NRO and the Air Force have committed to purchasing eight launches per year from United Launch Alliance, the Lockheed Martin and Boeing joint venture that produces the Atlas and Delta rockets. The variable number of launches the government was purchasing each year was driving up costs. Now ULA can drive the price down by being more efficient, he said.

The Air Force must also welcome new entrants into the business. SpaceX, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch company, has been knocking on the door for several years hoping to receive orders from the Air Force. The service has been moving in a deliberate manner to certify the startup’s rockets.

“One of the great ways to hold down costs is competition,” Loverro said. “We are actively seeking out others who might be able to meet our requirements.”

Shelton said the PowerPoint slogans of the 1990s didn’t work. “Faster, better, cheaper,” was one. As was the business plan that urged government to get out of the way of contractors and let them do all the work with minimal oversight.

The government’s hands-off approach failed, he said. And too much oversight is unaffordable and constrains industry. “So we’ve got to find that balance somehow,” Shelton added.

He introduced a new slogan: “Design to budget.”

Let the budget be the driver of a program rather than the technology push, he said.

“The die is cast for the next 10 to 15 years because of long development time lines, but we have got to start turning this ship,” he added.                                   

Topics: Space

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