Creating An Agile, All-Space Architecture

Aerospace is working with the Operationally Responsive Space Office and other defense organizations to develop a comprehensive space architecture that will meet urgent warfighter needs.

Book iconFirst published Summer 2009, Crosslink® magazine

Thomas Adang and James Gee


For the past 40 years, the U.S. space architecture has been focused on what is now referred to as “big space.” Most space systems provide exquisite capability, but it takes 5–8 years to build and deploy each. The “small space” systems that were developed and deployed more quickly were typically experimental or research satellites, providing little to no operational capability. Today, however, the increasingly complex role of space systems in all aspects of peacekeeping and warfighting has created highly varied needs for timeliness, persistence, data volume, and command and control—and with combatant commanders requesting more regionally focused space systems, small space is seen as an important part of a broader space picture.

An Architectural approach to building

An architectural approach to building the operationally responsive space capability, which is based on the classic systems engineering “V.” The vision is for a “U-2 Wing” in space with realization of the ORS 2015 blueprint. Verifying the segments and systems will occur prior to validation of the architecture.

Defense planners have been increasingly vocal about the state of U.S. space architecture, aware of the need for change. They are not suggesting that the existing space architecture should be replaced; rather, they argue for an evolutionary move toward a balanced architecture that includes big and small space systems. Medium and large systems would provide the foundational capability, while small and less complex systems would provide additional capability in high-demand areas and niche capability for special operations and irregular needs. In short, the vision is for an agile “all space” architecture that can accommodate rapid changes and deliver a full spectrum of capabilities to the end user.

The Aerospace Corporation has supported big space for its entire existence, and has contributed to many of the trailblazing achievements in the small space arena. Drawing on this experience and expertise, Aerospace is now providing technical leadership to the development of an agile all-space architecture, working with all of the DOD entities focused on this goal.

Building the Architecture

The pursuit of more agility in U.S. space architecture is not new. In 2003, Air Force Space Command conducted an analysis of alternatives to determine the cost-effectiveness of operationally responsive launch and payload systems. The goal was to provide transformational capabilities synchronized to warfighter needs. The initial architecture was focused on incremental, spiral acquisition of reusable first-stage boosters, expendable upper stages, and responsive payloads. In 2005, the DOD Office of Force Transformation defined operationally responsive space (ORS) as a new business model, whereby space capabilities are designed for the operational commanders who drive the demand, which in turn defines the cost, risk, and mission-criticality. This model would require cheaper, smaller satellites with single-mission payloads and far shorter life spans. It was not designed to replace the larger space program, but to complement it. The smaller, less expensive satellites would serve as a testbed for larger space programs by providing a clear channel for science and technology investments. They would also provide a future ability to reconstitute larger space capabilities.

This effort led to the establishment of the tactical satellite (TacSat) program, with TacSats developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory and Naval Research Laboratory. TacSats were envisioned as stepping-stones to a more agile architecture, providing the scientific and national security space communities with an opportunity to demonstrate new technologies and new concepts of operation in space. Also in 2005, the Air Force led a joint effort known as Joint Warfighting Space that would provide space forces under control of the joint force commanders with responsive launch and space capabilities. These would be usable within hours or days instead of days or weeks and would be integrated with global national security space efforts and other theater systems.

In 2005, U.S. space transportation policy stressed the goal of a more agile space architecture, one that focused on more than just rapid access to space. The policy clearly spelled out enabling functions for demonstrating operationally responsive access to space by 2010. Those functions (requirements and concepts of operation for launch, infrastructure, spacecraft, and ground operations) are critical building blocks to an agile all-space architecture. This policy served as a call to action for small space activities, and prompted Congress to direct DOD to establish an ORS Office.

A notional concept of an all-space architecture with "good enough" to "exquisite" capabilities and a timeframe for deployment identified.

A notional concept of an all-space architecture with “good enough” to “exquisite” capabilities and a timeframe for deployment identified.

The ORS Office was established at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, in May 2007. Approximately 60 personnel are assigned to the office, divided equally between government and contractor staff along with Air Force, Army, and Navy personnel. The office is also staffed by members of the National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and NASA. Aerospace personnel are also assigned to the office.

In the charter of the ORS Office, the DOD defined the ORS mission as “assured space power focused on timely satisfaction of joint force commanders’ needs,” and directed that the ORS implementation plan be developed and coordinated with the DOD and intelligence community. The ORS Office, according to the DOD, should be able to respond to joint force commanders’ needs and develop end-to-end enablers for small satellites to provide timely space solutions.

In May 2007, U.S. Strategic Command further defined the focus and initial concept of operations for the ORS Office, which included rapid development of highly responsive space solutions (e.g., small satellite/launch vehicle combinations, and processing to convert data into actionable knowledge) and supporting concepts, tactics, techniques, and procedures. This established a tiered process by which the ORS Office and the national security space community would deliver space capability to the warfighter. The goal is to implement this tiered process by 2015 through a phased development approach comprising distinct “crawl,” “walk,” and “run” phases.

The ORS 2015 blueprint encompasses activities related to the bus and payload; launch and range; command and control; and tasking, planning, exploitation, and dissemination. The blueprint is driven by the needs of joint force commanders and the warfighter, and is based on a modular and open system architecture.

The ORS 2015 blueprint encompasses activities related to the bus and payload; launch and range; command and control; and tasking, planning, exploitation, and dissemination. The blueprint is driven by the needs of joint force commanders and the warfighter, and is based on a modular and open system architecture.

In 2007, Congress provided specific missions for the newly formed ORS Office. These included contributing to the development of low-cost, rapid-reaction payloads, buses, spacelift, and launch control capabilities to fulfill joint military operational requirements for on-demand space support and reconstitution of critical space capability lost to natural or hostile actions. The ORS Office would also coordinate and execute ORS efforts across the DOD with respect to planning, acquisition, and operations.

Congress also directed the ORS Office to demonstrate, acquire, and deploy an ORS capability in support of military users and operations that consisted of responsive satellite payloads and buses built to common technical standards; low-cost space launch vehicles and supporting range operations that facilitate the timely launch and on-orbit operations of satellites; responsive command and control capabilities; and concepts of operations, tactics, techniques, and procedures that permit the use of responsive space assets for combat and military operations other than war, such as disaster recovery and humanitarian aid.

Congress provided the ORS Office with cost goals of $20 million for launch services and $40 million for procurement of an integrated satellite. These congressional directives and goals provided the initial architectural guidelines used by the ORS Office to establish its vision and approach.

Filling the Small Space Void

The ORS Office is taking a standard systems engineering approach to achieving the 2015 end-state vision or “blueprint.” Steps have been taken to define user needs, develop a concept of operations and end-state architecture, assess and plan for development of necessary segments of that architecture, and begin to procure and build individual segments. User-specific missions are the glue that allows segment integration and testing, systems integration and testing, and systems demonstration and validation. The result is mission capabilities that meet the initially specified user needs.

The ORS Office selected the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Space Development and Test Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, to manage the development and fielding of the first ORS mission known as ORS-1, designed to meet a critical U.S. Central Command need for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). ORS-1 will modify an existing airborne payload and use existing tasking, processing, exploitation, and distribution systems. It will be put into orbit on a Minotaur launch vehicle. The ORS-1 mission will fill a warfighter gap and develop and exercise many of the key ORS enablers necessary for future ORS missions, such as enhanced small satellite performance, reduced launch schedule, open command and control, and timely dissemination of information to the warfighter using existing tactical networks. The ORS Office is also assessing other joint force commander needs in the areas of ultrahigh frequency (UHF) satellite communications, space situational awareness, and ISR.

The ORS 2015 blueprint flows from warfighter needs and derives from the initial ORS concepts of operation defined by U.S. Strategic Command for Tier 1, 2, and 3 timelines (capabilities within hours, weeks, and months). There are several key components to the architecture: a “design cell” that develops concepts/solutions in response to a joint force commander need; a series of mission kits that provide payload capability; standard platforms on which the mission kits are integrated; a rapid assembly, integration, and test capability; a rapid integration and launch function; and a ground enterprise architecture that ensures actionable information is provided to warfighters. The initial design cell has been established and exercised in response to the joint force commander needs provided by U.S. Strategic Command. Those needs also indicated the priority mission kits (communications, space situational awareness, and ISR) that will need to be developed. This development is underway, and the ISR payload on ORS-1 could serve as the operational prototype for a future mission.

The concept of operations for responsive space. Necessary enablers are identified, including a range of responsive platforms, payloads, and buses. Rapid build-up and turnaround times, on-demand launchers, and payload flexibility all play a vital part in creating this new paradigm for space.

The concept of operations for responsive space. Necessary enablers are identified, including a range of responsive platforms, payloads, and buses. Rapid build-up and turnaround times, on-demand launchers, and payload flexibility all play a vital part in creating this new paradigm for space.

This model for responsive space is a space-based version of the U-2 Wing. The goal is to bring the timeliness of air tasking orders to space operations. Like the U-2 Wing, the ORS Office is working to establish standard platforms (i.e., buses), mission kits (i.e., payloads), and interfaces to enable rapid integration and call-up. The infrastructure will be based on a modular open systems architecture and open standards for hardware and software. The plan is to control long-lead items through the use of a Rapid Response Space Works facility. Key functions of this facility will be rapid assembly, integration and testing, and integrated logistics support. The ORS Office and the Space Development and Test Wing are working to develop the Rapid Response Space Works prototype.

The diverse set of investments required to achieve the 2015 blueprint are known as ORS enablers or pillars of responsive space. They generally fall into the categories of launch and range; buses; payloads; command and control; tasking, processing, exploitation, and distribution; concepts of operations; and authorities. These enablers can also be viewed as architecture segments; each is a dependent entity that must be built and integrated to ensure the needed capability is met. ORS-class satellites are currently in the 500 kilogram range, and this class of satellite drives pillar development strategies.

For example, the ORS Office primarily relies on the Minotaur I and IV launch vehicles, though it is also investigating the use of other launch vehicles, such as the SpaceX Falcon series, that would move it closer to congressional cost goals. Range enablers are more of a challenge. Several U.S. launch ranges exist (e.g., Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg, Wallops, Kodiak, and Kwajalein), but not all of these can accommodate small launch vehicles, and none is currently configured to meet the Tier 2 launch capability. Achieving Tier 2 and 3 goals will require significant investment in modular and reconfigurable satellite bus and payload architectures, technologies, and concepts of operation.

The strategy for satellite command and control and tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination is to first leverage existing airborne infrastructure. This approach addresses the goal of assured space power focused on timely satisfaction of commander needs, but creates another major challenge in developing a responsive space concept of operations that is integrated with the broader national security space operational architecture. The ORS Office must work throughout DOD and with other government agencies to ensure that authorities are operationally responsive. This involves establishing international relationships and developing processes for rapid contracting and acquisition, information assurance, and frequency allocation and registration. The world’s leaders in small satellite operations are in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Israel, and the United States can benefit from teaming with these partners. In addition to developing small satellite bus and payload technology and bringing space systems into coalition warfare, U.S. international partners are providing “nonmaterial” enablers. For example, because of the time it can take for approvals, frequency allocation and registration approval can be a multiyear process, and must be treated like long-lead items for payloads and buses.

A phased approach to developing enablers for responsive space. The objectives include reaching milestones for the crawl, walk, and run phases of achieving the 2015 blueprint for space. All phases are designed to respond to warfighter needs.

A phased approach to developing enablers for responsive space. The objectives include reaching milestones for the crawl, walk, and run phases of achieving the 2015 blueprint for space. All phases are designed to respond to warfighter needs.

Procuring, building, coding, and assembling segments are typically space industry tasks, and the space industry must be involved for the mission of an all-space architecture to be a success. Soon after its establishment, the ORS Office began to aggressively engage the space industry, recognizing that substantial changes in the industrial base were necessary to successfully build ORS enablers. For example, in February 2008, the ORS Office held its first ORS Industry Day, and in March 2008, released three Broad Agency Announcements for building ORS enabling capabilities in launch, range, modeling, architecture, and modular spacecraft payload and bus capabilities. Subsequently, the ORS Office issued more than 20 contracts worth more than $18 million.

These contracts, along with the startup of the Rapid Response Space Works and the development of ORS-1, are just the beginning of enabler development. The next step is to ensure the development of a cross-enabler program and road map that clearly points to a phased delivery of a U-2 Wing in space from now through 2015. This capability will provide an inventory of modular buses and payloads, where standard interfaces enable “plug-and-play” assembly in response to joint force commander requests. Coupled with a responsive infrastructure that provides launch, operations, command and control, and dissemination, this capability will serve to better integrate space with air and ground expeditionary forces and sustain high operational tempos.

Aerospace’s Role

Aerospace has been supporting all facets of the development of an agile all-space architecture. Aerospace provided fundamental technical analysis leading to the ORS construct and provided critical support to the effective stand-up of the ORS Office. Aerospace analysis of small satellite concepts, architectures, and utility supported the initial Joint Warfighting Space activities in 2005, the National Security Space Office Responsive Space Operations Architecture Study in 2006, and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s trade space evaluation of the TacSat series. In 2007, Aerospace helped compose the “Plan for Operationally Responsive Space,” which the DOD submitted to Congress. It established the Aerospace support plan for the ORS Office and proposed an operational satellite study to guide the initial ORS satellite investment strategy. Aerospace also established an ORS Community of Practice in June 2007, which was designed to identify, consolidate, and document cross-organizational knowledge and corporate positions on ORS. The community also guides corporate efforts for comprehensive and consistent exploration of ORS concepts and implementations. It has been an effective mechanism for coordinating Aerospace support—especially for the development of ORS-1 and the planning for ORS-2, potentially a small radar satellite.

A figure displaying tiered timelines for delivery of space capabilities. Gaps and needs in warfighter capabilities are identified and prioritized by U.S. Strategic Command before a tiered approach is decided upon.

Responsive space capabilities that are integrated in an end-to-end architecture. These are the necessary building blocks for an agile, all-space architecture, and are based on a pillared approach supported by enabling elements.

Aerospace has led the ORS response process for joint force commander needs, ensuring critical support was provided to warfighters in the areas of UHF satellite communications and space situational awareness. Aerospace also functions as chief systems engineer and architect for the ORS Office, working with a collocated research consortium that helps the ORS Office solve difficult systems engineering problems.

Other Aerospace efforts include leading a warfighter requirements assessment, establishing an ORS government/industry consortium for defining and implementing modular open system standards critical to development of the ORS 2015 blueprint, and creating a ground system enterprise architecture necessary to deliver space-based actionable information directly to the warfighter.

A key role of Aerospace is to foresee the challenges of implementing the ORS vision. The ORS Office will face numerous decisions on alternative paths forward. For example, an understanding of launch-on-schedule versus launch-on-demand will help plan the operations of the Rapid Response Space Works. Aerospace is also conducting a study on the feasibility of on-demand launch and operation. This concept involves the ability to quickly provide a new space-based capability or augmentation with very little notice, and requires coordinated command and control, satellite, and ground systems. The objective of the study is to define methods for accomplishing on-demand launch and operation. Key questions include:

  • How much time is allowed or required from “cold-start” to initial on-orbit services? How does this affect launch vehicles, space vehicles, and ground systems?
  • What are the missions and orbits? This requires determining launch vehicle capabilities and the location of launch sites. A broad range of orbits for a mission may require the use of multiple launch sites and multiple payload options.
  • What are the mission parameters? These include location of interest, resolution, field-of-view, coverage per day, etc. This must also satisfy coverage requirements, potentially requiring more than one satellite and may involve multiple launches or a larger launch vehicle to carry multiple satellites.
  • How many launches are required, and for how long? This depends on requirements (10 launches per year, month, or day?) and determines launch vehicle and space vehicle fleet sizes, facilities architecture, and suitable ranges.

Although ORS missions can be deployed for space force enhancement, space control, and space force application, this study focuses on space force enhancement, including communications, ISR, environmental monitoring, missile warning and battle space characterization, and navigation and timing. This study also examines various concepts of operations for ground processing, including the use of fully integrated launch and space vehicles stacked on launchpads; space vehicles integrated with upper stages stored in ready condition; space vehicles integrated with fairings stored in ready condition; and space vehicle “standard” buses and multiple payloads stored at a site, all of which would be awaiting call-up determined by payload need, integration with bus, launch vehicle, and launch.

A figure displaying tiered timelines for delivery of space capabilities. Gaps and needs in warfighter capabilities are identified and prioritized by U.S. Strategic Command before a tiered approach is decided upon.

A figure displaying tiered timelines for delivery of space capabilities. Gaps and needs in warfighter capabilities are identified and prioritized by U.S. Strategic Command before a tiered approach is decided upon.


Senior national leaders have clearly stated the need for an agile all-space architecture. Today, the biggest capability shortfall is in the small space domain. Substantial efforts have been made to address this shortfall, including the establishment of an ORS Office to accelerate national security space actions to build the small space architecture and to instill agility into big space processes.

Aerospace has been a key participant in efforts to develop an agile architecture, having established a strong cross-disciplinary team to assist the national security space community in building that architecture. Consistent with its core competencies, Aerospace has helped develop the systems engineering and architecture approach to building agile all-space capabilities required by the warfighter and has been instrumental in assisting the ORS Office in its early successes.

A focus on agile all-space architecture and ORS is not likely to change. Congressional support for ORS capabilities remains strong. President Barack Obama said, “We should protect our assets in space by pursuing new technologies and capabilities that allow us to avoid attacks and recover from them quickly. The ORS program, which uses smaller, more nimble space assets to make U.S. systems more robust and less vulnerable, is a way to invest in this capability.”

The challenges to building an agile all-space architecture are many; the risks (political, technical, and fiscal) in the ORS approach are significant. Some still question the military utility of small satellites, but there is growing evidence that small satellites are providing clear military utility. Large, multimission, high-performance satellites cannot be everywhere all the time. Meanwhile, small, sufficiently capable satellites are proving their capability can be a match to user needs. Building an agile all-space architecture will require staying the course through the “crawl, walk, run” development phases to ensure the 2015 end state is realized, with the warfighter clearly being the beneficiary. Aerospace support will be critical to achieving this vision.

Further Reading

Kendall K. Brown, “A Concept of Operations and Technology Implications for Operationally Responsive Space,” Air & Space Power Journal (Summer, 2004).

Arthur K. Cebrowski and John W. Raymond, “Operationally Responsive Space: A New Defense Business Model,” Parameters (Summer, 2005, pp. 67–77).

Les Doggrell, “The Reconstitution Imperative,” Air & Space Power Journal (Winter, 2008).

Edward W. Kneller and Paul D. Popejoy, “National Security Space Office Responsive Space Operations Architecture Study Final Results,” (Sept. 19–21, 2006); AIAA Paper 2006-7496.

“National Defense Authorization Act of 2007,” Section 913, Department of Defense, Washington, DC.

“National Security Presidential Directive 49,” U.S. National Space Policy, August 31, 2006. (as of May 8, 2009).

“Plan for Operationally Responsive Space: A Report to Congressional Defense Committees,” National Security Space Office, Washington, DC, April 17, 2007.

Back to the Summer 2009 Table of Contents