This may be remembered as the year both Congress and the Pentagon finally lost patience with the military's trouble-plagued space programs, as lawmakers applied the brakes to new development projects while Defense Department officials restructured two ongoing efforts that have come to symbolize all that has gone wrong.
The U.S. Air Force ended 2004 with the hope that it could overcome congressional skepticism and put its two biggest new satellite development programs on a steady footing. But Congress' resolve to rein in the Space Radar and Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) programs only grew stronger as 2005 progressed.
Both the House and Senate indicated in their versions of the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act that the Pentagon's recent track record in space acquisition did not instill confidence that the Space Radar or T-Sat communications system could be developed affordably and on schedule.
Both bills once again slashed the annual budget request for those programs, reducing the $226 million request for Space Radar to $100 million, and the $836 million request for T-Sat to $436 million.
Meanwhile, lawmakers expressed growing frustration with military space in public statements. Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said during a July 12 hearing that Congress "cannot continue to tolerate countless cost overruns and schedule delays."
Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), former chairman of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, delivered even harsher criticism in a Sept. 23 speech here, declaring poor program management to be a greater threat to space assets than anti-satellite weapons.
J.P. Stevens, vice president for space systems at the Arlington, Va.-based Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group, said an Air Force leadership vacuum during much of the year hampered the service's efforts to turn things around.
A string of retirements forced Peter B. Teets, Air Force undersecretary and director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), to take on the duties of service secretary and acquisition executive in January. Teets himself retired in late March, leaving a significant void until he was replaced by Ronald Sega in early August.
In public statements since then, Sega has repeatedly stated his preference for taking a more conservative approach to space programs, in part by relying on more mature technology.
Stevens said he hopes to see a summit between industry leaders and Pentagon brass this year to discuss ways to fix acquisition problems on satellites and other systems.
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington think tank, said things already may have taken a turn for the better, and cited two major program restructurings as examples. In October, the NRO reduced Boeing's share of the Future Imagery Architecture contract and handed additional work to Lockheed Martin. And in December, the Pentagon elected to curtail its purchase of Lockheed Martin-built Space Based Infrared System missile-warning satellites from five to two or three.
Thompson noted that the Pentagon also is considering major changes to the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, a new series of weather satellites whose projected cost has grown by more than 25 percent.
These actions could help the Pentagon regain its footing in space acquisition for 2006 and beyond, Thompson said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency ended the year on a high note, with the first successful flight test since January 2004 of the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System Dec. 13. The interceptor booster failed to launch in two previous flight attempts.
The agency also achieved key test milestones on two other major programs: The Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, which on Nov. 17 scored its first intercept of a target warhead that had separated from its booster rocket; and the Airborne Laser, which on Dec. 6 fired its beam at power levels sufficient to destroy a missile.
Pat Shanahan, vice president for missile defense systems at Chicago-based Boeing, prime contractor on the Airborne Laser, hailed the system test in a Dec. 12 news release as a "major technological achievement" on the way to fielding an operational system.
Victoria Samson, a research analyst with the Center for Defense Information, a think tank here, struck a different tone, noting that 2005 began with the second consecutive flight-test failure involving the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System. The Missile Defense Agency has yet to declare the system operational more than one year past the date the agency had targeted for doing so, she said.
Samson, a frequent missile defense critic, said she did not wish to dismiss the significance of the Aegis and Airborne Laser tests, but noted that both systems are a long way from being combat ready.