WASHINGTON — Four Republican lawmakers have asked the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to halt a satellite-servicing program, arguing it violates national space policy guidelines that discourage public competition with commercial space activities.
The complaints come as DARPA is poised to make a contract award for the program under fire, Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS). Under RSGS, the agency aims to develop and demonstrate a robotic spacecraft that would service government and commercial satellites in orbit 22,000 miles up.
But the lawmakers and the firm Orbital ATK say the program would spoil the business case for commercial satellite servicing. The agency wants to create a public-private partnership to make robotic servicing available to military and commercial satellite owners on a fee-for-service basis.
"DARPA's RSGS program will subsidize a single company with several hundred million dollars' worth of space hardware and launch service, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer, to directly compete with commercial satellite servicing systems that Orbital ATK and other companies are developing with their own private capital," the company said in a statement Thursday.
Orbital ATK sees the program as competition for its Mission Extension Vehicle 1 (MEV-1), under production at the company's satellite manufacturing facility in Dulles, Virginia. That system is scheduled for launch in late 2018 and in-orbit testing with an Intelsat-built satellite by early 2019.
Acting DARPA Director Steven Walker received two letters from lawmakers this week making arguments similar to those of Orbital ATK.
Reps. Jim Bridenstine, of Oklahoma; Barbara Comstock, of Virginia; and Rob Bishop, of Utah, called on Walker to "stop any further action on RSGS." Bridenstine, who is active on space issues, has been floated as the next chief of NASA
California Rep. Duncan Hunter, a House Armed Services Committee member, wrote to Walker and Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work to argue RSDS not only disrupts the commercial market but duplicates NASA's Restore-L program.
"Putting significant government funding in a program that has no government requirement but is designed to create a commercial industry by subsidizing a single company is counter to U.S. space policy, jeopardizes private investment in commercial satellite servicing business and wastes taxpayer dollars," Hunter's letters read.
DARPA rejects the allegations. Spokesman Jared Adams said in a statement Wednesday that the RSGS acquisition approach complies with US space policy and has been extensively reviewed and verified within the Defense Department. DARPA was in source selection for the program and, Adams said, "conducting a fair and open competition."
Orbital ATK's MEV-1 system is intended to dock onto an aging satellite and serve as a new propulsion system. It could also inspect a satellite, push it into a new orbit or simply extend its life.
DARPA's RSGS would dock using a robotic arm it's been developing, and it would conduct a broader array of missions than the MEV does — at least in the short term. Beyond a replacement propulsion system, RSGS aims to refuel, inspect, repair and deliver new payloads to a satellite.
"The robotic payload is high-risk, high-payoff technology," Adams said. "A robotic [geostationary equatorial orbit] servicing capability that leverages this technology and provides the required functionality does not exist today and is not in development by the commercial sector."
Orbital ATK disagrees, and in an interview with Defense News last year, CEO David Thompson said the company envisions building and deploying a small fleet of about five commercial servicing vehicles to provide additional in-orbit services such as refueling, robotic repair of damaged satellites, and even assembly of multiple structures and advanced payloads.
Even so, the company did not submit a fully compliant bid for DARPA's May 2016 request for proposals, according to an industry source. The company's response argued the program was violating the national space policy and that DARPA should pursue a government-only program instead.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.