Air Force’s Screwed-Up Satellite Causing Headaches All Around

Faulty spacecraft at center of government controversy


One of the Air Force’s most secretive spy satellites isn’t working as designed. And that could heighten tension between the Air Force—which is growing tired of the office that developed the partially broken spacecraft—and the program’s supporters in Congress.

To be clear, we don’t know exactly which of America’s hundreds of satellites is malfunctioning or even what the sat is supposed to do under ideal circumstances. The government tends to be tight-lipped about its spacecraft.

What we do know, thanks to inside sources in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, is that the Air Force has decided to alter the failing craft’s mission parameters. In essence, the flying branch is adjusting its expectations downward in order to accommodate the space vehicle’s disappointing performance.

“It’s not doing what it was supposed to do,” a source said. “They’re just changing it up in order to do other things.”

The satellite’s problem could be related to its sensors, its communications links or other components. The shape of the vehicle’s orbit could even be the culprit.

The misbehaving satellite belongs to the Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space office, which is overseen by the Air Force. ORS stood up in 2007 with a mandate to develop and launch spy satellites quickly and cheaply. The goal was to speed up the military’s cumbersome space engineering process and reduce the multi-billion-dollar cost of building a new sat.

But the Air Force, long accustomed to slowly refining exotic new technologies at enormous expense—stealth fighters are a great example—was never quite comfortable with this fast and inexpensive approach to space development.

And two years ago, the flying branch tried to de-fund ORS, citing financial and engineering instability at the office.

Now the recent problem with the under-performing satellite could give the Air Force fresh ammunition in its efforts to shoot down the nimble space office.

An ORS space launch. Air Force photo

The Air Force press desk did not immediately respond to our request for on-the-record comment, but a senior Air Force official was able to confirm for War is Boring that the ORS office is experiencing issues with a particular spacecraft.

But “it’s more complicated than that,” the official said. “There were multiple sort of masters that the ORS program was trying to serve and that became part of the problem.” It’s not uncommon for the Air Force to launch and operate a satellite on behalf of other Pentagon agencies. Special Operations Command, for example, relies on the flying branch for any operation in space.

According to the congressional source, lawmakers have been in contact with Pentagon officials and are confident, at this point, that the changes the Air Force intends to make to the botched satellite’s mission are in the best interest of the ORS office.

Despite achieving moderate success with previous responsive satellites, Air Force officials have tried to scale back ORS’ roughly $125-million annual budget and have also attempted to shut down the office.

When the Air Force tried to remove ORS from its 2014 budget, a cadre of lawmakers and congressional aides fought back. The group managed to derail the closure plan by sending a strongly worded letter to the flying branch and, later, holding up the nomination of Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.

After Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, placed a hold on James’ nomination, James assured him that the Air Force would work with Congress to keep the ORS office open throughout 2014, according to the congressional source. The ORS office is based at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

James assured members of the New Mexico delegation that ORS will be safe for another year, but she did not make any promises for 2015, according to the Capitol Hill source. “I don’t think she’s married to the idea and saying that this is going to go on indefinitely,” the source said.

And ORS isn’t helping its case by lofting faulty satellites into orbit.

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