Albuquerque Journal: KAFB’s space operation gets a new mission

By:  Charles D. Brunt

An agency at Kirtland Air Force Base, charged with rapidly developing and fielding smaller and cheaper satellites that can be of immediate use to combat commanders, has a new mission that should keep it at Kirtland for at least several more years, according to U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich’s office.

The Operationally Responsive Space Office, set up at Kirtland in May 2007 but targeted twice for closure by the Pentagon, employs about 100 military, government civilians and contractors.

The agency was instrumental in developing and launching a surveillance satellite, originally known as ORS-1, which aided military commanders in Afghanistan.

It will now oversee development of another satellite, ORS-2.

Like most military satellites, the exact capabilities and missions of the ORS satellites are classified.

What has been revealed about the ORS-1, now designated as USA-231, is that it took only three years to develop from concept to on-orbit operations, compared to seven years or longer for traditional systems. The $225 million satellite was launched June 29, 2011, from NASA facilities in Virginia.

Though initially designed to operate for only a year, Air Force engineers and operators with the 1st and 7th Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., have extended ORS-1′s lifespan at least three additional years, according to the Air Force. The satellite, which reached orbit in June 2011, includes an updated version of a sensor employed by the U-2 spy plane. The Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, used by the military for five decades, is being retired.

Heinrich said he learned from Air Force Undersecretary Erik Fanning earlier this month that the Defense Department’s Executive Committee has approved a payload for ORS-2, a satellite with the broadly defined mission of providing “space situational awareness.”

That decision had been pending for more than a year and was part of the reason Heinrich temporarily blocked the nomination of Air Force Secretary nominee Deborah Lee James in 2013.

After receiving a commitment that the Air Force would stop planned layoffs at ORS, determine the ORS-2 payload, maintain the ORS office per congressional statute and determine a future for the ORS office, Heinrich allowed the nomination process to move forward, according to his spokeswoman Whitney Potter.

“I am very encouraged that Air Force leadership has agreed to move forward with a new mission for ORS,” Heinrich said in a statement. “I strongly believe in both the strategic and fiscal value of ORS. Quickly designing, building, and launching satellites at a fraction of the cost of traditional, multibillion-dollar satellites makes perfect sense when considering our nation’s debt and the increasingly competitive environment of outer space.”

ORS-2 is expected to cost about $60 million, take 30 months to build, and have a 2017 launch date, Heinrich’s office has said. No contractor has been selected. The Air Force is expected to fund about $20 million in launch costs, Potter said.