6–10 January 2020
Hyatt Regency Orlando,
Orlando, Florida

Responsive Space Is at Hand



Moderator Doug Loverro, president, Loverro Consulting LLC, and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, U.S. Department of Defense; Air Force Col. Eric Felt, director, Space Vehicles Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory; John London III, space systems program manager, Space and Missile Defense Command, U.S. Army; Chris Shank, director, Strategic Capabilities Office, U.S. Department of Defense; Paul “Rusty” Thomas, program manager, Tactical Technology Office, DARPA; Mandy Vaughn, president, VOX Space LLC

by Ben Iannotta, Aerospace America editor-in-chief

AIAA SCITECH FORUM, San Diego, Jan. 8, 2019 — The U.S. military’s long quest to launch satellites on demand for troops in the field is edging toward reality due largely to innovations in the commercial rocket and satellite worlds, members of the “Responsive Space” panel said.

The stakes could not be higher, one defense official said.

“China is integrating certain new technologies and fielding those capabilities faster than the United States. Think about that. That means we have to be more responsive,” said Chris Shank, director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office.

He said the Defense Department is “committed” to establishing a Space Development Agency to rapidly field next-generation technologies.

“Buckle up,” he said. “2019’s going to be busy.”

Mandy Vaughn, president of Virgin Orbit’s subsidiary VOX Space, which plans to launch responsive satellites for the military, cautioned Pentagon planners to avoid the temptation to reach too far with technical advances.

“Demonstrate it quick,” she said, referring to responsive space. Vaughn said it would be a mistake to get tied down in futuristic experimentation with concepts such as self-healing technologies. Prove that the “basis of the con-ops works,” she said, referring to the concept of operations that calls for rapid construction, storing and launching of satellites for reconnaissance or communications on demand.

John London, space system manager at the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, said a soldier should be able to control a satellite and receive data from it with a “handheld device.”

Doug Loverro, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, asked the panel why responsive space hasn’t been discussed much in the media or among policymakers.


Participants in the panel discussion "Responsive Space,” Jan. 8 at the 2019 AIAA Science and Technology Forum and Exposition (AIAA SciTech 2019) in San Diego.

Shank suggested that enthusiasm could grow as achievements are made.

“The promises have yet to be realized,” he said. “We need to be certain we’ve grasped the next rung before we let go of things.”

New space companies show tremendous promise, said Col. Eric Felt, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate in New Mexico.

“DOD must learn to leverage all this stuff,” he said, adding that he was specifically referring to the coming proliferation of low-Earth-orbit satellites that will fly autonomously. “We believe those are potentially game-changing technologies.”

DARPA is working to tap into those commercial technologies under a project called Blackjack. Paul “Rusty” Thomas, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said the agency envisions capitalizing on these production lines of hundreds of satellites.

“Blackjack is going to be able bring that responsiveness in, so you’re not worried about individual nodes,” he said, adding that DARPA envisions the military responding to specific demands from troops “in months or single-digit days.”

Watch the full video for more details.

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