ORLANDO, Florida – The U.S. Air Force’s on-again, off-again affair with "operationally responsive space" concepts appears to be heating up once more.

The Air Force is studying whether to hand management of two key satellite programs over to its ORS office, a major shift for a service that has tried mightily to terminate the office in the past.

The ORS program office, created by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, was formed to foster out-of-the-box ideas for building launches and satellites faster and more affordably.

Previously, in arguing to shutter ORS, Air Force officials said lessons garnered by the office on building satellites more simply, affordably and quickly would be infused into the more established program offices at the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles; these offices manage multibillion programs such as GPS, early missile warning and communications satellites. Congress, unconvinced that the Air Force is capable of steering itself away from designing mostly large, complex satellites, has consistently given ORS a stay of execution.

In a change of heart – or perhaps reading the writing on the wall from Congress – the Air Force is now considering ORS for management of its Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) and Defense Weather System follow-on programs. Both are needed to meet key requirements. But, in both cases, the service is cautious about keeping cost down.

ORS is a good choice for managing these programs because the office specializes in developing small satellite systems rapidly and at low cost, says Gen. John Hyten, chief of Air Force Space Command. The weather follow-on is further along than SBSS, but he notes both are being considered.

The Air Force is proposing accelerating procurement of a follow-on to the existing SBSS in orbit now; it is used to provide electro-optical surveillance of satellites from orbit, where it is not restricted by daylight, as are ground-based telescopes. Although the follow-on was eyed for service in 2023, the service is now considering it for use in 2020, says Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, who oversees the Air Force’s space acquisition programs at the Pentagon. The original SBSS was built by Boeing and Ball Aerospace. Though the satellite is operating well, the program was too costly due in part to a complex design employing a two-axis gimballed sensor mount.

With the SBSS follow on, Air Force officials hope to simplify the design and significantly reduce the price.

Likewise, after the implosion of the multibillion joint NASA/NOAA/Air Force National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, the Air Force has necked down its requirements for a Defense Meteorological Satellite Program follow-on in hopes of developing a simple design.

The ORS program office’s original charter came just as lessons were being harvested from the Air Force’s decade-long and marred development programs for the Space-Based Infrared System and Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite programs. Both overran their targets by billions of dollars and experienced significant delays, fostering an appetite in the Pentagon for smaller, less complex satellite designs, where possible.