In just two years since its inception, the Space Development Agency has convinced the Pentagon that cheaper mass-produced satellites deployed in large numbers can be of great value to the U.S. military.
The Defense Department established SDA in 2019 with the sole mission to accelerate the procurement of space capabilities and tap into the innovation of the commercial sector. With a $900 million budget, SDA has special acquisition authorities to allow projects to move fast without getting bogged down in reviews and Pentagon bureaucracy.
SDA plans to launch its first 28 satellites to low Earth orbit in fall 2022: 20 will be part of a mesh communications network called the Transport Layer, and eight will be missile-detecting sensor satellites known as the Tracking Layer. The next projected batch of 150 satellites is planned to launch in 2024.
Paula Trimble joined SDA in January as policy chief and legislative affairs director. A longtime Washington policy insider and former space journalist, Trimble spoke with SpaceNews about the agency’s disruptive approach to procuring technologies.
What do you do as SDA’s chief of policy and legislative affairs?
Engagement with committees on Capitol Hill is a top priority. Our focus is how we will be able to maintain this rapid schedule going forward. From my perspective as a policy person, one of the keys to maintaining schedules is stable funding. You have to ensure that your budget is protected if you’re going to stay on schedule and deliver the capabilities that you say we’re going to deliver.
What are some of the concerns you hear from Congress?
We get a lot of questions about how we get our requirements and how we determine what capabilities we’re going to deliver. The answer to that is that we have a ‘warfighter council’ made up of representatives from the combatant commands, the military services, the intelligence community and other stakeholders in the department. They tell us what capabilities they need.
What authorities does SDA have to expedite procurements and will that change when SDA is reorganized under the Space Force in 2022?
As a DoD agency we are responsible for our own acquisitions. We have our own head of contracting activity. All of these authorities have been delegated to us by the secretary of defense and they enable SDA to go fast. When we transition to the Space Force will we ensure that we can maintain the right level of those authorities and the right delegations to keep it going. Committees on the Hill are focused on helping us keep those authorities, and keep our independence and innovative culture intact. We’ve done enough engagement with the professional staff members on the committees that we have really been able to kind of build a groundswell of support for what we’re trying to do.
What else helps SDA move faster than other DoD organizations?
We are a small agency. We work at a fast speed partially because of the authorities, and also because our entire team is laser focused on delivering on time. When you have very little bureaucracy, you have a very focused team that knows that they can go straight to the top if they need to. When you can do that you cut out a lot of the things that cause delays in the process. No one allows paperwork to get in the way of decision making at SDA and that is unique and that is a culture change that I think the Space Force is trying to get to, to allow their program managers to offer the best recommendations and make decisions about their programs. People on the outside can see that and they want to figure out how they can replicate it elsewhere.
You started your journalism career at SpaceNews before you transitioned to government policy. How does it feel to now be working at DoD’s space agency?
I tell my colleagues at SDA that I feel like I came home. I started my career at SpaceNews, and then I worked at another publication covering GPS. But then I went to the Commerce Department, private industry and worked at DoD rapid prototyping office, away from space. And when I got this opportunity to come back, I was like, there’s no better time. The things that are going on both militarily and commercially in space, this is a pivotal moment.