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Space Test Program Enables Space Technical Enhancement

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jonathan Shea, Director of the DoD Space Test Program
Every great technological advancement begins with prototypes and experimental designs that are tested, refined and further developed.
For space technology, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Space Test Program (STP) is one of the oldest and biggest facilitators of the kinds of experiments that leads to tomorrow’s innovative space technology. STP provides mission design, spacecraft acquisition, integration, launch and operations support to facilitate experimental payload access to the space domain. These experimental payloads demonstrate technologies that accelerate the development of war-winning space capabilities for the joint warfighter.
As the primary agent for science and technology (S&T) payloads on multi-manifest missions flown on U.S. Space Force (USSF) and commercially procured launch vehicles, STP significantly expands U.S. space access and demonstrates cutting-edge technology to rapidly integrate DoD space power into national, joint and international operations.
At the same time, STP is answering General John “Jay” Raymond’s (Chief of Space Operations for the USSF) call for more cooperation by using its unique set of services to forge partnerships with commercial entities and international allies.
A Critical Component of National Security
Overall, STP is a critical component of national security because it is one of the only ways that the DoD can mature advanced technologies in the space domain; if unsuccessful, the US will fall steadily behind our adversaries in the technological competition.
One of the main challenges facing the USSF is how the new service can maintain its technological advantage in the space warfighting domain. The DoD STP is a key component of that answer. Headquartered at New Mexico’s Kirtland Air Force Base and managed by the Innovation and Prototyping Acquisition Delta within the USSF Space Systems Command (SSC), STP provides a series of unique services to facilitate access to space for experimental space payloads that exhibit potential military utility.
Created in 1965, the STP is one of the longest continuously running programs in the DoD. In its 57-year history, this organization has executed over 300 missions. Its recent past demonstrates the strength of experience - in 2021, STP successfully integrated payloads on six separate rocket launches. STP’s services enable the advancement of scientific knowledge and capability, which is foundational to ensuring continuous U.S. advantage in the space domain.
Competitive Access to Space
The cornerstone for this success is STP’s facilitation of the DoD Space Experiment Review Board (SERB), which evaluates and ranks space-borne experiments from across the DoD that are requesting STP launch support services. Due to STP’s unique ability to facilitate access to space for multiple experiments, the SERB evaluations are an extremely competitive process. In many ways, it mirrors a “Shark Tank” format, wherein experimenters brief the evaluators on their payload’s military relevance, mission requirements, technology transition plans and experiment quality.
Once the SERB approves an experiment, STP will then apportion resources to secure space flight opportunities. This process is critical because it ensures significant cost savings for many of the laboratories and research and development centers that do not have the funding required to procure their own launch capability. The SERB list currently boasts more than 80 ranked candidate missions and STP is working diligently to get them all into outer space using its core integration services: large launch vehicle integration, small launch vehicle integration, International Space Station (ISS) integration and payload-to-bus integration.
First, STP boasts the ability to acquire a dedicated Atlas, Vulcan, Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy launch on a four-year cadence. A recent example is the STP-3 launch on an Atlas 551 and its flagship vehicle, STP Satellite-6 (STP Sat-6). The STPSat-6 spacecraft hosted nine payloads, including a NASA laser communications mission called the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) and a National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) nuclear detection payload, as well as seven DoD SERB-ranked experiments.
The STP-3 mission was one of the most complicated missions ever executed by the USSF. STP Sat-6 was the primary payload on a co-manifested mission along with the Long Duration Propulsive ESPA 1 (LDPE-1) mission, which is a modular ring-shaped vehicle that manifested multiple payloads of its own. Altogether, the STP-3 mission featured 2 space vehicles and 12 distinct payloads, all with different sponsoring organizations. In spite of the technical, political and bureaucratic difficulties this presented, the STP team flawlessly ensured that the mission got all assets integrated so that the Atlas launch vehicle could take them into their intended orbits.
Another way that STP manifests payloads is by using their capability to obtain a dedicated series of small launch vehicles every two years, as showcased in the upcoming STP-S28A mission. For this mission, the USSF and SSC teamed up with Virgin Orbit National Systems, a US-incorporated, wholly owned subsidiary to Virgin Orbit, to launch multiple DoD satellites from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. This mission will launch seven SERB satellites from multiple DoD agencies using the Virgin Orbit National Systems Space “LauncherOne” system. In addition to getting SERB payloads into space, the STP-S28A mission also demonstrates commercially available solutions for placing USSF satellite capabilities on-orbit from non-traditional locations.
International Cooperation with Allies
STP is also using its small launch integration capability as a vessel to enhance USSF international cooperation initiatives, which is high on Gen. Raymond’s priority list.
 “The evolution of the security environment requires greater interoperability with partners and allies,” Raymond has said. STP is rising to the challenge later this summer by again collaborating with Virgin Orbit National Systems to launch a pair of DoD satellites from Spaceport Cornwall, Newquay, UK. The mission, designated STP-27 VPD,” will launch two R&D satellites from an international cooperative effort between the Naval Research Lab, UK Universities and the UK Ministry of Defense. This mission will solidify the USSF’s ability to partner with international allies in the research and development arena.
The next element of STP’s ability to enable research & development (R&D) experimentation is the ironclad partnership with NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) team at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. STP has a team permanently located on-site at JSC, and is designated, per DoD mandate, as the “single manager for all DoD payloads on the ISS, future manned and unmanned NASA launch vehicles…” The Houston team developed a modular platform that integrates seamlessly into the ISS, enabling multiple experiments that use the orbiting station as their host platform. Experiments onboard the ISS benefit from substantial subsidies provided by NASA; accordingly, manifesting on the ISS becomes an extremely cost-effective option for many SERB payloads.
Expanding Access to Space in the Future
STP is investing in an organic contract to build standard space vehicles (aka “buses”) for mounting experimental payloads prior to placing them on the rocket. This initiative, known as the Space Test Experimentation Platform 2.0 (STEP 2.0,) will give STP customers increased flexibility to integrate their payloads onto busses that are specifically tailored to match the STP launch rhythm. Once on contract, the STEP 2.0 contract will enable STP to reach out to other organizations seeking busses and initiate collaborative partnerships, which will in turn increase the synergy between the DoD’s myriad space agencies.
As the primary agent for S&T payloads across the entire DoD, STP is pivotal to expanding space access and demonstrating next-generation technology. Further, STP is leading the charge for more cooperation in the space domain by using its multi-faceted suite of services to forge DoD, commercial and international partnerships. STP is a critical component of national security because it is one of the only ways that the DoD can mature advanced technologies in the space domain, which in turn ensures a future of continued space dominance for the United States and its allies.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Shea is the current Director of the DoD Space Test Program, and is the first director to come from the USSF. His background includes satellite acquisition, experimental operations, and nuclear maintenance. He deployed in support of OPERATION RESOLUTE SUPPORT and is a graduate of the Air Force’s prestigious School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.