Air Force Research Laboratory Commander Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle and other AFRL subject matter experts gathered to connect with the space community at the Space Foundation's 36th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs August 23-27.
Space Foundation Chief Executive Officer, retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Thomas E. Zelibor opened the annual symposium, which was last hosted in April 2019 after organizers postponed the event twice due to COVID-19.
"We're back, right where we belong, ready to showcase the people, ideas and organizations that are driving the era of access and opportunity in the global space ecosystem," Zelibor said.
He reflected on the changes within the space community since the last symposium, including the increase in orbiting satellites and surveying Rovers for Mars, the U.S. Space Force and Space Command's operational status and "the doors of commercial space flight hav[ing] been opened wide by industry."
The symposium saw its own advancements this year, as this was the first time the event was hosted virtually on a global scale with most of the proceedings livestreamed. For those attending in-person, a newly built, state-of-the-art conference hall more than doubled the event space, which offered the symposium's most expansive exhibitor hall in the event's history, allowing for 270 exhibitors from around the world, including AFRL's booth.
Space Force Awarded
The opening ceremonies also included an announcement of the 2020 Space Foundation awards winners as well as a presentation of the 2021 awards. The U.S. Space Force received the Space Achievement Award for "establishing a new military service branch in addition to the mission operations and partnerships that will secure national and economic security going forward."
The award citation also acknowledged service members' development of the doctrine, processes, leadership, organizational structures and operations of the world's first independent space force in fewer than 18 months.
Gen. John "Jay" Raymond, the first Chief of Space Operations for the Space Force, accepted the award on behalf of the nearly 12,000 Guardians, both active duty and civilians, who he said are committed to building the new service.
"Probably the thing I am most proud of are the partnerships that we have built with our international partners, commercial partners, civil partners, and I can tell you that we are better postured today to handle the challenges that we face in space than we were the last time the symposium got together," Raymond said.
Raymond elaborated in his keynote speech the following day, noting that, "space is hard, but it's almost impossible without the partners that are represented here [at the symposium]."
AFRL's Role in Space
Pringle built on Raymond's statements in her presentation later during the symposium, highlighting AFRL's presence at the event and the laboratory's contributions to space.
"I absolutely love the excitement, the opportunities to connect, the partnerships we can build and the palpable enthusiasm to exchange ideas that build the space ecosystem together," Pringle said.
"When it comes to science and technology, I take our role very seriously, and I believe that it's non-negotiable that we pursue game-changing technologies for both Airmen and Guardians. We are one lab supporting two services. As Secretary Kendall says, 'It's one team, one fight.'"
The lab's approximately 6,500 personnel-700 of which are Guardians within the lab-work side-by-side to deliver transformational technologies, including quantum computing, artificial intelligence and microelectronics, across nearly 10 U.S. states and nine international research project arrangements throughout the world.
"We leverage our expertise across all of our technology directorates in AFRL, and we repeatedly consider the applications to both the air and space domains. We absolutely know that our way in warfare depends on our space superiority and delivering air power any time anywhere," said Pringle.
She gave a snapshot of the team's accomplishments throughout the years via a timeline of the lab's history since "the dawn of the Aviation Age," a record of which "helped move [AFRL] into the Space Age," including contributions to the testing of Apollo rocket engines and multiple intercontinental ballistic missile programs.
The lab continues to support space research and science and technology efforts, including Rocket Cargo, which was announced as the Department of the Air Force's fourth Vanguard program in June. The DAF released a corresponding solicitation called Rocket Experimentation for Global Agile Logistics, requesting proposals on a broad range of related S and T tech areas. With the Rocket Cargo program, the DAF seeks to determine the viability of using commercially available cargo space aboard commercial rockets to move up to 100 tons of cargo anywhere in the world in an hour.
Pringle also emphasized the criticality of AFRL programs and partnerships during her keynote speech.
"The science and technology ecosystem is expansive-constantly evolving, and innovative ideas come from all different sources; so, as Gen. Raymond says, 'This is a team sport.' From small, medium and large businesses, non-traditionals, federal labs, agencies and international allies. And with today's rapidly growing space sector, we have an abundance of potential partners out there. We're keen on growing those partnership with academia and industry and leveraging commercial investment to enhance space capabilities."
Pringle also touched on SpaceWERX, calling it "one of our most energetic thrusts in this area." SpaceWERX, which is part of the AFRL technology directorate AFWERX, serves as the DAF's innovation arm for space. Stood up in August, SpaceWERX will create platforms for space operators, lab engineers and acquisition professionals to work alongside academia and industry to develop novel solutions. Moreover, SpaceWERX will continue to leverage proven AFWERX tools such as the Small Business Innovation Research Open Topic, Challenge platform, STRATFI initiative and Prime program.
Pringle noted that the SpaceWERX hub in Los Angeles has "established its first initiative, a SpacePrime, which establishes SpaceWERX's mission of fostering innovation and creativity from our small businesses to answer the Space Force's looming challenges."
Pringle explained that public-private partnerships allow industry to leverage AFRL funding and facilities while also expanding AFRL's network of collaborative partners and increasing the lab's exposure to new ideas and commercial innovation.
"In the end, partnerships make us stronger and more able to deliver transformational capabilities, and building on that partnership is just the beginning," she said, adding, "Ultimately, the success of the relationship is benefitting both sides."
On hand at AFRL's symposium exhibition booth, lab personnel explained how higher education and international organizations can engage with AFRL about forming partnerships. Another area featured was the Air Force and Space Force Tech Connect website, a portal where users submit ideas and capabilities for potential feedback, collaborations and opportunities. Those interested in interacting with AFRL scientists and engineers on a technical level are encouraged to visit the site and create a profile.
AFRL's Space Programs
Displays and booth personnel also provided information on the lab's innovative space technology programs, including the aforementioned efforts as well as Navigation Technology Satellite (NTS-3), Space Solar Incremental Demonstrations and Research Project (SSPIDR) and Rocket-Factory-in-a-Box.
The DAF Vanguard, NTS-3, aims to provide unprecedented position, navigation and timing accuracy via an experimental navigation satellite.
The SSPIDR project is a series of flight experiments designed to mature critical technologies for building an operational solar power beaming system in space that provides reliable and logistically agile power to expeditionary forces.
AFRL's Rachel Delaney, SSPIDR project communication lead, answered questions from interested parties, explaining how the program aims to capture the sun's energy on orbit and beam it to the ground for on-demand power in areas where fossil fuel is both costly and dangerous to transport.
Rocket-Factory-in-a-Box uses agile logistics, revolutionary design and component manufacturing techniques to enable rapid solid rocket motor production in a small footprint with the flexibility to tailor performance to specific solid rocket propulsion missions.
"AFRL has been churning out innovative technologies for space application for quite some time," Pringle said. "We're a world-class research and development facility for the Air Force and the Space Force. We were there with you at the dawn of the Aviation Age, and we're excited to be with you here now at the dawn of this second new Space Age, inextricably linked to it as one lab for two services."
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