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White House budget would cut military space research

Posted: February 13, 2012

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The White House's fiscal year 2013 budget request calls for unclassified U.S. military space spending of about $8 billion, sustaining development of the Defense Department's legacy systems while terminating new weather satellites, the Operationally Responsive Space office, and the Air Force's Space Test Program.

Artist's concept of ORS 1, an operational high-resolution imaging satellite developed by the ORS office. Credit: Goodrich/ORS
The savings mark a reduction from President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2012 budget request, which called for $10.2 billion in military space spending.

The Operationally Responsive Space office, headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., would be closed under the budget request. The Pentagon established the ORS program as a joint-force change agent in 2007 to demonstrate space systems on leaner budgets and rapid schedules.

The Space Test Program, also garrisoned at Kirtland, would receive $10 million in the budget request, a fraction of the program's $47 million funding level in the current fiscal year.

The budget calls for the end of the Space Test Program, which has provided access to space for more than 500 military research payloads since 1965. The program would be terminated to reallocate funding to higher department priorities, the military said in a statement released to Spaceflight Now.

Funding in fiscal year 2013 would provide for the closeout of the program.

"STP will provide space access and on-orbit operations for as many Space Experiments Review Board (SERB) approved experiments and payloads as possible with the available funding," the Air Force statement said.

A military spokesperson said said one more STP mission, named STP-2, would be retained under the Air Force's science and technology budget line. STP-2 was previously slated for launch on an EELV-class rocket in 2014 or 2015.

The ORS program and its predecessor organization successfully developed and launched four satellites since 2006, including three TacSat tactical test payloads and an operational low-cost imaging spacecraft.

"The Air Force is working to integrate ORS lessons learned into the broader set of space programs, allowing for a more distributed and integrated approach," the department said in a written statement. "To do this, rather than have a stand-alone program office, the Air Force will transition the ORS efforts, principles and activities to the [Air Force] Space and Missile Systems Center."

Congress appropriated $110 million for the ORS office in fiscal year 2012, which runs through the end of September. The Obama administration's budget request must still be approved by Congress before being enacted into law.

The ORS office reports to the secretary of the Air Force, placing it outside the branch's traditional space bureaucracy. The fiscal year 2013 budget request spreads the ORS office's funding among programs at the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center, which manages the branch's space and rocket procurements.

"Some of the concepts that came out of ORS will be divided among programs, so rather than having niche capabitilies, you will take those concepts and technologies and have that available to a wider audience at SMC by really giving it to the technology teams there," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Edward Bolton, deputy assistant secretary for budget.

The ORS program is investing in modular spacecraft buses aimed at reducing the time between a satellite order and delivery. The office's first operational satellite, named ORS 1, went from the drawing board to the launch pad in less than 3 years for $226 million.

"Our job is to really explore the capabilities that we can bring to the fight with smaller, lower-cost systems," said Peter Wegner, director of the ORS office, in an interview in September.

Officials say mastering a standardized satellite bus and developing a responsive launch vehicle could enable more cost-effective space technology, making space systems available to meet the tactical needs of combatant commanders.

ORS 1 is delivering tactical surveillance and reconnaissance imagery directly to U.S. troops on the battlefield. U.S. Central Command requested the space-based imaging capability for its operations in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, including Afghanistan.

The Air Force's Defense Weather Satellite System is canceled in President Obama's budget proposal. Instead, the Air Force will refurbish two remaining Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, or DMSP, spacecraft for launch in approximately 2014 and 2020 to continue the Defense Department's weather observation network.

The budget pays for Air Force procurement of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets in the next fiscal year, providing for purchases of four launchers. The number does not include buys from the Navy, the National Reconnaissance Office, or NASA.

The Air Force also plans block buys of two more geosynchronous Space-Based Infrared System, or SBIRS GEO, missile early warning satellites, expanding the fleet to six spacecraft. Two next-generation GPS navigaton craft would also be paid for in the budget.