COVID, OneWeb and how the Space Development Agency has coped

DATE: May 26, 2020 | Outlet: C4ISRNet | By: Nathan Strout          

In March 2019, the Department of Defense established the Space Development Agency to oversee the creation of a new national security space architecture, one that would forego the traditional U.S. Air Force approach of using a small number of large satellites in higher orbits in favor of a proliferated constellation of smaller satellites operating in low Earth orbit.

SDA was established to move faster than the traditional national security space establishment. It plans on launching its first satellites just three years after being stood up and placing new satellites on orbit every two years in a spiral development approach. Now just over a year after being organized, the agency has issued its first solicitation for tranche 0, that first set of about 20 satellites that will serve as a base for its constellation that will ultimately be made up of hundreds of satellites, and is close to issuing a second.

SDA Director Derek Tournear sat down (virtually) May 19 with C4ISRNET’s Nathan Strout to discuss his agency’s progress, the health of the industrial base and the impact of COVID-19 on his plans.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

C4ISRNET: First, the agency has been notably busy over the last month—can you give us an update on SDA’s progress?

DEREK TOURNEAR: Our (request for proposals) for our first tranche is rapidly coming to a close (and we’re) excited to see what proposals we get in there on June 1 for our transport Tranche 0. We’ve just put out our draft RFP for our tracking tranche 0, which is our [Overhead Persistent Infrared] for the advanced missile threat satellites. Our plan is to have that final RFP out June 15. We want to have both rapid turns because our plan is to get performers for tracking and transport tranche 0 on contract as rapidly as possible. The main feedback I’ve been getting from industry on both of these is the end of FY22 is rapidly approaching, so there’s not a lot of room for error to make sure that we get something up on that timeframe, and that’s our goal.

C4ISRNET: The draft tracking layer calls for eight Wide Field of View (WVOF) satellites to be launched in FY22, to be followed by a few Medium Field of View (MFOV) in FY23. Will we see a separate RFP for the MFOV satellites?

TOURNEAR: The MFOV satellites we want to launch as close as possible to the WFOV, but they’re a little bit larger, a little bit more complicated satellites and they’ll take a little longer and that’s what is dragging it out to the ‘23 timeframe. What we are doing for MFOV — those are actually MDA’s Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) satellites, so we’re working with them and MDA has their plans on how they’re going to downselect from the current performers to performers to build out one or two satellites for the MFOV. So any solicitation for the MFOV satellites will be the solicitations for the HBTSS satellites.

C4ISRNet: What feedback have you received from industry on these solicitations? Have you changed what you’re looking for in response to industry feedback?

TOURNEAR: Only small adjustments. On the transport RFP, when we had the draft out we got feedback regarding some technical specifications and details that we adjusted before we put out the final. I haven’t seen what kind of responses we’ve received for tracking, but I imagine they’ll be along those same lines. They’ll be very technical in nature.

But overall the baseline plan to be able to get tranche 0 up in this timeframe we haven’t changed at all and we’re continuing to press on that. And so far the main feedback I’ve gotten from industry in addition to “Wow that’s fast” is they’re very excited. They’re very excited that there is an agency out there that is pushing this model, that they can respond to, that is driving a market that will show that there are new capabilities going out, that will allow them to bid to on a rapid cadence.

C4ISRNET: And your impression so far is that industry can support that cadence?

TOURNEAR: A lot of the very specific bus components and some of the specific electronics and focal planes for tracking are the longest lead items. And those lead times are around 40 weeks for the longest, so that is supportable for the launch time scale that we’re talking about, with the advantage being that that’s kind of the initial setup. So once you get the first satellite up, then industry is able to respond and they’re able to build several of these a month after that. So I believe that the supply chain is strong to be able to support the number of satellites that we need and the cadence of a new tranche every two years seems to be right in the sweet spot of what is not easy to do, but certainly within the realm of the possible.