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NRO, Air Force working to formalize relationship

Posted: December 4, 2009

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Senior government space officials are attempting to streamline their operations and boost their industrial base to improve mission assurance for a wide range of classified and unclassified programs, agency leaders said this week.

The U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and the National Reconnaissance Office agreed on a cooperative mission assurance strategic intent framework during the U.S. Space Enterprise Mission Assurance Summit held Thursday.

Representatives from NASA and the Missile Defense Agency also attended the summit.

"An important outcome of our efforts will be to identify the lessons learned, the best practices, and to have a common approach across all of the organizations in making sure that we have mission success," said Wanda Austin, president and CEO of the Aerospace Corp., which sponsored the summit.

Although the agencies have agreed to work closer together, a Memorandum of Understanding is still being discussed to create a common mission assurance strategy.

Officials organized the meeting to strengthen ties between government space agencies and industrial suppliers and forge closer partnerships to formalize practices among space organizations.

Military space programs have encountered soaring costs and mounting delays in recent years, even leading to contractor changes and the cancellation of some systems.

"It was a recognition that we're supported by the same industrial base and an opportunity to make sure that we're helping them to be cost-efficient by sending consistent messages when we ask for space hardware that we can have contract confidence in," Austin said.

"We do use the same industrial base, whether you're building NASA capabilities, or NRO capabilities, or Air Force capabilities," said Lt. Gen. John "Tom" Sheridan, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, or SMC.

"We're going to work very hard to formalize and put in writing the way we do business within the community, so they're not personality-dependent," said Bruce Carlson, director of the NRO.

The NRO operates the government's fleet of top secret spy satellites. SMC serves as the Air Force's acquisition division for mostly unclassified programs.

Carlson said previous mistakes made it clear the government space community needs to share information and develop a common set of standards for programs.

"It's not something we want to start just months before launch, but it's something we start to bake in when we're beginning to design the satellite or we begin to build the rocket," Sheridan said.

The standards must provide predictability, singularity and repeatability among civil and military space missions, according to Carlson.

"In order for this set of standards to work, it has to work on the East Coast and the West Coast, with a NASA payload or an NRO payload, and so on," Carlson said.

Officials singled out problems with ever-changing launch manifests and difficulties managing tight launch schedules. Atlas and Delta rockets provide transportation to space for large NASA, Air Force and NRO payloads.

"We need to give them a work schedule they can count on," Carlson said. "That's something we haven't been able to do. We've bounced them around from one coast to the other, one launch site to the other, because we haven't been able to match rockets with payloads in a predictable way."

Delays in payload availability have caused rippling launch schedule slips affecting missions from multiple organizations.

"I need something that I can count on because I've got other payloads and rockets that are awaiting launch, so I need predictability," Carlson said. "I don't want a process that takes six months on one rocket and three months on the next one."

Carlson also discussed the status of a new NRO charter and statement of principles, the first update of the literature since the agency was declassified in 1992.

The new statement of principles is being vetted by senior Pentagon officials. Carlson said he hopes it will give the NRO's director new authority over a slice of the agency's budget to freely shuffle between troubled programs to cover cost overruns.