Congress, Pentagon

Mixed messages on the future of ORS

The Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program has been on thin ice for some time: the Air Force has in the past attempted to kill funding for the ORS Office, arguing that the experience the office has built up developing low-cost, responsive space systems can be utilized by other Air Force organizations. And that’s the case again this year, as the Air Force’s fiscal year 2015 budget request (p. 283 of the PDF document) includes no funding for the ORS Office in 2015 or beyond.

However, Congress has pushed back again efforts to shutter the ORS Office, including language in Defense Department authorization bills to keep the office open and providing at least a token amount of funding for its operations: $10 million for fiscal year 2014. One senator now says there’s a new spacecraft mission coming for the office.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) told the Albuquerque Journal in an article published Wednesday that that Air Force officials told him that they have identified a payload for the ORS-2 mission, one that will support space situational awareness. The article doesn’t provide any additional details other than ORS-2 will cost $60 million and take 30 months to build, with an additional $20 million for launch. In the Air Force budget documents, there’s no mention of ORS-2 beyond the delivery of the bus for that mission, although there is an ORS-5 mission slated to be developed through the end of fiscal year 2016 that features “a space situational awareness payload to meet a USSTRATCOM [US Strategic Command] validated urgent need, address rapidly evolving threats, and serve as a pathfinder in this vital mission area.” The budget documents state that both ORS-2 and ORS-5 are covered by fiscal year 2013 and 2014 funds.

Heinrich is particularly interested in the ORS Office since it’s based at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. Last fall, he briefly placed a hold on the nomination of Deborah Lee James to be the next Secretary of the Air Force, seeking answers to questions about the future of the ORS Office. He lifted the hold after Air Force officials told him they would keep the ORS Office open through fiscal year 2014 and determine a mission and payload for ORS-2. “I appreciate the Air Force‚Äôs cooperation and reconsideration, and I look forward to continue our work together to ensure the ORS program remains intact,” Heinrich said in an October 1 statement announcing he lifted the hold on James, who was later confirmed.

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