New Space Acquisition Chief Wants to Apply Contracting Lessons from NRO

The new head of space acquisition for the Department of the Air Force plans to import lessons he learned at the National Reconnaissance Office—especially the “relentless pursuit of program management discipline”—to the Space Force. 

Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration Frank Calvelli also said that “for now” he doesn’t think the Space Force will need to acquire commercial space data, such as imagery, separately from the NRO.

In his first public remarks in the role, Calvelli spoke to Explorer Chair for Space Warfighting Studies retired USAF Gen. Kevin Chilton of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in a webinar June 24. Calvelli served as principal deputy director of the NRO for eight years prior to his DAF confirmation in April.

Calvelli said he’s “so impressed with the portfolio of programs across the department” that his priority will be “to deliver on the things that got started over the last couple of years.”

Among “several things” he’d borrow from his experience at the NRO, Calvelli listed the project management culture and practices and a preference, in certain situations, for firm-fixed-price contracting as themes he expects to carry with him. 

Discipline in estimating costs and schedules translates to faster space acquisition by reducing the need to replan a program after it’s deemed impossible to execute, Calvelli said.

“There’s a real solid project management culture at the NRO. Our program managers, when I was there, and still today, pride themselves on delivering on cost and on schedule,” Calvelli said. “It’s a culture, and I really hope to steal from the lessons I’ve learned at the NRO to bring that culture to Space Systems Command, the Space Development Agency, and the Space Rapid Capabilities Office.”

While “really pushing for cost realism and schedule realism in their competitive [requests for proposals],” the NRO’s program managers came up with the idea of scoring the bids on how realistic the cost and schedule appear to be. Independent cost estimators within the department get to weigh in, “and that seems to be working,” Calvelli said. 

“You bring independent cost folks on the cost team with you, and if they tell you, “Eh, I think they’re low bidding this,’ you … rate [the bid] a high risk and throw that proposal out.”

Another characteristic he’d like to introduce into the Space Force’s contracting is for program managers to “be proactively managing cost, schedule, and performance.” 

“Our government PMs need to proactively manage the baseline,” Calvelli said. “I call it the relentless pursuit of program management discipline. … You drive that discipline into it, and you’re going to start to achieve some speed.”

Calvalli also said firm-fixed-price contracts can help keep programs on schedule and that they have “a lot of benefits we want to explore on the Space Force side of the house,” citing the Space Development Agency’s choice to award fixed-price contracts and success with the contracting method in space acquisition at NASA as well.

Asked whether he envisioned a role for the Space Force in acquiring commercial space sensing data, such as photography and radar imaging, to provide to U.S. Space Command or other combatant commands, Calvelli said he didn’t see an immediate need.

“The NRO has a whole Commercial Systems program offices that deals with commercial industry, and they work in partnership with [the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] and the commercial sector,” Calvelli said. “I would see first going through [NRO] to see if they could satisfy those needs.”