DoD Buzz

Troubled STSS Readies for Launch


5. 4. 3. 2. 1. Northrop Grumman employees will be holding their breath around Sept. 15 when the enormous billows of flame and smoke begin to spew forth from a rocket lifting a new generation of space sensors into orbit.

That launch will carry two demonstration satellites of a $1.4 billion program known as the Space Tracking and Surveillance System. Northrop Grumman employees will be holding their breath because STSS may mean billions in new business if the satellites perform as planned. And there is always the possibility of a launch failure. Given how long the program has been in gestation -- more than a decade, after having been canceled once before -- there is almost no hope of building more STSS birds. A new program would have to be started and this is a difficult time to get any new program approved by the Pentagon.

STSS will provide capabilities the US does not have now. The two satellites will be able, from their low earth orbit, to give missileers a "stereo" view of a cold missile flying through space. That means the US could shoot one missile at the incoming threat, see if it hits and then ready another strike with much higher confidence than is currently possible, said Larry Dodgen, sector VP for Northrop's information systems. That ability to track a "cold" missile in space also gives US forces much greater confidence they can take out a missile that is maneuvering since the threat is being tracked through space in close to real time.

Today, US forces rely on the DSP satellites to spot a missile launch and then the threat is tracked by ground or ship-based radar. STSS will, if it all works, allow the US to use far fewer ground stations. Northrop sent me a backgrounder saying that STSS would provide tracking capability equivalent to about "50 TPY?2 radars or approximately 20 sea?based X?Band radars."

STSS could also provide crucial help to one of the country's most pressing military issues -- improving our knowledge of what is in space and where it is at any given time. Dodgen said STSS could help improve the data in the so-called space catalog that is compiled by NASA and the Air Force. However, that will come after the satellites go through their rigorous on-orbit checkout and they prove themselves able to carry out their primary missions of tracking launched missile.

A classified STSS payload launched in May could also provide some new capabilities but I know next to nothing about it.

The entire program was publicly criticized for lousy quality control by no less a figure than Lt. Gen Patrick O'Reilly, director of the Missile Defense Agency. Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, O'Reilly said May 21 more than half of his agency's $152 million budget overrun in 2008 was due to STSS. Fred Ricker, the former STSS program manager who is now Northrop's VP for military space systems, told me that they had had problems with a "box" supplied by a subcontractor, among several technical issues they faced.

Because the subcontractor no longer did any military business, Northrop had to open up the box and reverse engineer it to figure out what was causing the problem and then fixed it. That sort of work eats up tremendous numbers of very expensive man hours. But that is all behind them now and he said he would tell Gen. O'Reilly that those problems are fixed.

The Delta 2 launch in mid-September will be just the beginning of the process of proving that all is now well with STSS.

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