With a space-based tracking and surveillance system set to launch from Vandenberg Air Force base this summer, turning the flood of information generated by the United States’ military space operations into actionable intelligence for commanders is a top priority, a top Air Force space commander said Feb. 17.
“There’s a lot of data coming in — terabytes of data,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Larry James, who oversees America’s worldwide military space operations from Vandenberg. “We have to get our arms around how to manage that.”
James, who spoke at an event hosted by the Central Coast MIT Enterprise Forum in Santa Barbara to discuss opportunities and challenges in the future for the space industry, said that the Air Force is working on implementing information technology systems that would help turn data from sources as disparate as infrared sensors and e-mails into intelligence that military officials can use to make quick, crucial decisions.
Vandenberg launches both government and commercial satellites.
James also said orbital debris is an emerging problem for operations in space. Last year, an abandoned satellite collided with an active one, scattering thousands of fragments that could damage or destroy crucial communications or positioning satellites. Vandenberg is now tracking more than 22,000 hunks of space junk and alerts satellite owners, whether government or commercial, when there’s danger of a collision. In the first year of the program, satellite owners have maneuvered out of danger 56 times based on the warnings, James said.
James and other panelists at the event worried about a shrinking number of U.S. manufacturing companies to supply the nation’s space operations.
“If you look at the rocket producers in this country, there are not that many,” James said. “We certainly feel the industrial base is a concern.”
Dan Burnham, the former chief executive officer of Massachusetts-based defense contractor Raytheon Co., which employees nearly 1,500 people in the Goleta area, said the recently announced orders to privatize many of NASA’s operations won’t cure the shrinking industrial base for space equipment.
“Going to a commercial space model does not solve the space launch problem,” Burnham said. “It begs the question: How do we make sure they’re paying attention to the supplier community?”
Burnham recalled an incident during the height of building the International Space Station when a small-but-crucial part threatened to delay the project. Burnham phoned to find the CEO of the company that made the part and heard the whir of machinery on the other end of the line when the person who answered called across the tiny shop for the owner.
“He said, ‘I’ve got all four of my people on it.’ And there wasn’t anybody else [to supply the part],” Burnham said. “Giving [space contracts] to a commercial body doesn’t help that problem. It comes down to nuts and bolts.”
A group of California startups is trying to establish a commercial space travel sector. One such company is Masten Space Systems, a Mojave-based firm that is developing a reusable take-off and landing launch vehicle.
Founder David Masten said that despite a lot of enthusiasm and promise in the industry, the barriers to entry, both monetary and bureaucratic, remain high. In one case, he wanted to discuss technology with a Canadian engineer but would have had to go through a lengthy State Department approval process.
“It’s not the launch regulations, it’s the regulations about who you can talk to about your technology,” Masten said. “You have to have a lot of money to start on your own and a lot of money to pay all the lawyers.”