The seal of the U.S. Air Force's Operationally Responsive Space office.

The seal of the U.S. Air Force's Operationally Responsive Space office. Marcus Weisgerber/Defense One

As the Air Force Turns Its Focus to Space, This Small Team Could Lead the Way

Once seen as a threat to traditional acquisition channels, the Operationally Responsive Space office is making it faster and cheaper to put new capabilities into orbit.

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — “I believe we will be fighting in space in the next 10 years,” Gen. David Goldfein warns the dozen-or-so Air Force officers gathered in a conference room here. What’s more, the fighter pilot-turned-chief of staff says, “Space superiority is going to be central to who we are as a service.”

As the Air Force — and policymakers at the Pentagon and in Congress — rethink how the military should build and retain this space superiority, it’s clear that the service needs faster, cheaper ways to put spacecraft on orbit. This small office at Kirtland just might show the way.

Created in 2007 by order of the deputy defense secretary, the Operationally Responsive Space office is a handful of uniformed officers who build satellites relatively quickly and cheaply using small teams of contractors and a unique on-base factory. After several years in which Air Force leaders tried to kill the shop — it competes, somewhat, with the Space and Missile Systems Center that has long produced many of the service’s most advanced and costly spacecraft — ORS is now getting praise from the chief of staff.

Goldfein toured the factory here last month and emerged impressed. He called “pretty significant” the August launch of a satellite just three years after an urgent operational request came in. Built by MIT Lincoln Labs, it will team up with larger, more expensive satellites to help map objects in space.

“They’ve cut years off the process, and millions of dollars,” he said. “We saw a great example of how to actually, on a risk-based model, achieve speed in acquisition.”

Modeled on the Air Force’s slightly older Rapid Capabilities Office, ORS goes to work after a commander sends an urgent battlefield need, something that cannot be filled by an existing satellite, and the Pentagon approves the job. Contacts are awarded, a satellite is built and eventually launched — generally speaking, after about three years and $100 million. Compare that to major Air Force satellite programs that often take a decade or more and cost upwards of $1 billion.

Goldfein noted that “there’s a limit to what they can build”; for example, ORS designs satellites to last perhaps a few years, not decades like a Global Positioning System satellite. Nor is their record perfect. Two years ago, the rocket carrying the team’s fourth satellite broke up shortly after launch.

But the office and its fast-moving ways are increasingly attractive — not just to former Air Force officials who have pressed for this kind of thing but current ones as well.

“As we built a space enterprise in an uncontested domain, we had the luxury of going slow because our adversaries were not pushing us,” Goldfein said. “It was an environment there was little competition when it came to testing the environment. We’re in a different place now. Like the nuclear enterprise, space is the other enterprise where we’re going to have to look at speed as a key attribute for success. How we get there is going to be as much a cultural change as a tactical change.”

That kind of cultural change is taking hold across the military. In recent years, the defense secretary’s Strategic Capabilities Office has led the services’ efforts to introduce new capabilities not by developing clean-sheet weapons but by modifying and upgrading existing ones. The Air Force itself is developing its next bomber with the Rapid Capabilities Office instead of standard acquisition channels.

“We actually have some great models out there that are working,” Goldfein said. “The question is whether we can make that shift.”

The Factory

Inside an all-white room behind a thin plastic sheet, a satellite about the size of a refrigerator is being pieced together by a small team of workers wearing lab coats. It’s the ORS group’s sixth satellite. If all goes as planned, airmen here at Kirtland will use the satellite to measure the height and direction of the sea.

The satellite is being built through a unique arrangement here on a military base, not at some far-off defense contractor factory. Its bus and payload — made, respectively, by Northrop Grumman and the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Lab — were built for other projects that didn’t materialize. A company called Millennium Engineering is putting it all together.

When it heads to orbit next year, it will launch on a SpaceX rocket with other non-military satellites, a ride-share arrangement that one Air Force official compared to taking a bus instead of driving alone in a car. The price is a mere $10 million, a fraction of what it would cost to fly on its own rocket, said Lt. Col. Eric Moomey, chief of programs in the Operationally Responsive Space office.

If it succeeds, the Air Force will have gained another option for going to space — and, along with then 15-year-old SpaceX, dealt another blow to the monopoly held by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin United Launch Alliance.

The prospect of far cheaper launches led one officer to ask Goldfein whether this would encourage the Air Force to build satellites that don’t last as long — allowing them to be built more cheaply, launched more quickly, and using more up-to-date technology.

Goldfein’s visit here cames as the service’s space forces find themselves at a crossroads. Earlier this year, lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to create a new military space force, akin to the Marine Corps, in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. But they did pass a series of space reforms that nixed the Air Force’s plans to create a three-star general billet at the Pentagon that would oversee space operations.

Goldfein said four factors will guide the Air Force’s approach to space: The “combination of lower cost to launch, the digitization of payload to make it smaller, the profitability of space for commercial industry and adversary activity.”

“Those four issues are going to come together in ways that are going to drive us to be far more adaptive in space going forward,” he said. “I do think that what they’re proving is that there’s a different path to get things into space quickly.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.