The Air Force is continuing its move toward cheaper, smaller satellites that will enable it to respond to operational demands much quicker than the billion-dollar satellites that take years to develop. The main example of this change is the series of Operational Responsive Space satellites, which started with the 2011 launch of ORS-1, said Col. Shahnaz Punjani, the director of the Operationally Responsive Space Office. For that mission, US Central Command identified an urgent need for strategic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and in a short window the Air Force was able to strap a U-2’s sensor suite to a satellite bus and launch it on a relatively cheap Minotaur I.The ORS program has not been perfect, however. In 2015, ORS-4 failed shortly after takeoff from a range in Hawaii. The ORS payload was atop an experimental Aerojet Rocketdyne Super Strypi rocket. The Air Force is getting ready to launch the next satellite in this series, ORS-5 on a Minotaur IV next year from Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla.
Planning for ORS-5 began in 2014, and will launch within three years, which in space acquisition is “pretty darn spotty,” Punjani said. The launch is going through FAA-certified commercial procedures, instead of regular intense National Security Space launch procedures. Because this satellite program is about $100 million, and the satellite itself will stay in orbit for just a few years, the same procedures used on a billion-dollar program aren’t as necessary, she said. That isn’t to say the service is going away from its large-scale projects. “We need larger programs,” she said, but while the service will still do those “exquisite solutions,” smaller programs, such as ORS-5, show there are efficient ways to complete other missions.