Air Force Moving to Quicker, Cheaper Space Launches

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.