New AFRL mission area leads integrate, execute space S&T needs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, Commander Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle announced new space mission area leads, or MAL, in December 2022. With the growing national space community, she said, adding space MALs will help support the range of customers in the expanding ecosystem.

image of cislunar orbit

Depiction of a possible cislunar orbit, where the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Oracle spacecraft will collect observations of resident space objects in the region near the Moon and potentially beyond. These observations will be cataloged and used to maintain awareness in the regime. Oracle will deliver advanced space capabilities in support of the U.S. Space Force’s space situational awareness mission. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

“The team will build a critical communication path with the Space Force, and I am certain they will add considerable value,” Pringle said.

In ensuring AFRL’s support of the U.S. Space Force, Pringle began “One Lab, Two Services” as one of her top priorities.

Along with naming new space MALs, Pringle also established a key role: deputy technology executive officer, or TEO, for Space Science and Technology, or S&T.

Dr. Andrew “Andy” Williams, deputy TEO for S&T, is responsible for integrating and executing Space S&T across AFRL and the community to ensure the appropriate prioritization of Space S&T needs for a balanced technology portfolio to support the Space Force.

The deputy TEO role within AFRL was established with the standup of the Space Force.

“We wanted to make sure there was a leadership role within AFRL focused on capturing the needs and the requirements from the Space Force, and to ensure their needs and equities were being addressed,” Williams said.

Roles, responsibilities

The space MALs will focus on customer engagement with external stakeholders and translating between operational capability gaps and S&T solutions to ensure strong communication, Williams said. The MALs will also aid the enterprise planning process to integrate space S&T across the mission organizations to enhance one AFRL supporting two services.

“The five new space MALs will assist me with integrating technical capabilities across the AFRL enterprise to provide the USSF with the necessary technology to deter our adversaries in space,” Williams said.

Five mission area leads were created and are aligned to the Space Force, or “Spacepower”, doctrine to ensure AFRL is aligned with the primary customer — the Space Force, he added.

Of the five areas, the first lead is focused on information mobility, which involves sensing, communication, positioning, navigation and timing, Williams said. The second area is space access with mobility and logistics, including launch, in-space propulsion, and potentially servicing future spacecraft and Space Force applications, he added. The third area is space domain awareness.

“To understand what is going on in space, what our systems are doing, what everyone else’s systems are doing — and making sure that we truly understand what is going on in space,” Williams said. “So that we can respond appropriately.”

The fourth area is space superiority. This is how the team will make the space systems and architectures more resilient. Such as “the hybrid architecture, using proliferation of satellites and low Earth orbits; these are all things that we are looking to do within space superiority.”

The last area involves space security and international partnerships. The MAL will look at how to interact and integrate with commercial and international partners.

There is “the realization that space isn’t just about the U.S. government,” Williams said. “There are strong elements for commercial involvement and relationships with our international partners.”

Focus areas, goals

The focus of the space mission area leads is twofold, Williams said.

One is to make sure that we have an integrated strategy across AFRL — leveraging all of the capabilities that we have across the different mission organizations and technology areas,” he added.

Many of the technologies are space focused, but not all. There are many considered multidomain or domain agnostic, Williams said. This includes cyber, networking and other similar applications.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the air or space — the fundamental research is the same for many technologies, and we need to leverage all capabilities across AFRL in support of one lab two services,” he said

The second area of focus for the MALs involves customer engagement, interacting with groups external to the AFRL and then translating operational language to technical requirements and back to work with customers.

As the Director of Science, Technology and Research for the U.S. Space Force, Dr. Joel B. Mozer translates the goals, objectives and strategies of the Chief of Space Operations into actionable and prioritized demand signals for the S&T ecosystem.

“The mission area leads are the primary recipients of those demand signals at AFRL, as they further [develop] that information into funded programs and objectives at the labs,” Mozer said. “The mission area leads are also key communicators of the discoveries, innovative ideas, and ‘technology push’ that comes from the laboratories.”

Williams said much of their communication has to do with the language that the subject matter experts, or SMEs, speak. He compared it to the purchase of a new TV, where the operator or consumer may simply want quality sound and image vs the scientist who wants to know the definition between 4K and 8K and how many pixels and the pixel density.

So, from operator to scientist, the MALs help understand the needs and translate these to a technical language, so the SMEs understand what they are working.

“They are the focal points internally for our subject matter experts to understand what the needs and the priorities of the Space Force are,” Williams added. “We also want them to be our link to industry, commercial, academia and anybody we want to collaborate with.”

It is the mission of the MALs to know the priorities, capability gaps and pain points for the operators, Williams said. Then they must be able to communicate that to the AFRL enterprise. This translation will allow them to prioritize the S&T needed to develop and deliver those capabilities.

The MALs are integrated across AFRL with two MALs in the Space Vehicles Directorate, one from the Directed Energy Directorate, one from the Aerospace Systems Directorate and a fifth at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

  1. Space Information Mobility: Dr. Wellesley Pereira
  2. Space Domain Awareness: Laura Durr
  3. Space Logistics, Access and Mobility: Dr. Robert Antypas
  4. Space Superiority: Lt. Col. Michael “Peewee” Sherman
  5. Space Security and International Partnerships: Ron Caton

“The MALs demonstrate the diversity of space research across AFRL — all five of the MALs come from different parts of the organization,” Williams said.

The MALs are integrating and starting to work together as a group. With only a few months on the job, the team gathered to discuss plans and goals they want to achieve by the end of the year.

Getting to an integrated enterprise strategy is one of the goals, Williams said.

“The two goals are to document the integrated space technology strategy so that we know exactly what capability we will deliver in the near term,” he added. “And to ensure we have a full capability pipeline for the continual flow of new technologies into operator capability.”

The second goal is to strengthen S&T communication across the Space Force.

“With many new organizations, new roles and responsibilities emerging, we are trying to keep pace with the USSF,” Williams said. “We want to make sure we have constant communication and know what those linkages are and where those demand signals are.”

As the MALs become established, Mozer believes there will be an increase in communication and collaboration, which are the keys to effective S&T management.

“We must be foresighted, flexible and fast if we want to keep up with our strategic competitors in space,” Mozer said.

Key components, expanding areas

Keeping up with the ever-changing technology is an area of importance and the space domain is the most technologically challenging warfighting domain, Mozer said.

“It is also the fastest-growing domain today in terms of technology, human activity and dependence on services from space,” he added.

Another key component is digital transformation.

“Space Force wants to be born digital and we are really focused on that,” Williams said. “We want to make sure that the tools and the processes that we are developing in AFRL integrate with those in the Space Force, so we can work seamlessly as an enterprise and as different organizations to really accelerate the delivery of capability.”

Williams said the team will work toward digital models of the systems and the technology developed to transition that to Space Systems Command so the process to develop those into deliverable capabilities can be accelerated.

Williams said he will be expanding four major focus areas within the AFRL portfolio.

The first is the hybrid architecture and how to accelerate the pivot to that hybrid architecture, which is focused on resiliency, he added.

“Orbital diversity, platform diversity and making sure that we have resilient capabilities because of the importance of space to the joint fight,” Williams said.

And the second is emerging technologies such as quantum, autonomy, machine intelligence, machine learning and leveraging the capabilities, in an ethical way, to improve capabilities and reduce the burdens on operators in the Space Force, Williams said.

“The third big area is looking at how we can integrate better with the Space Force, and how we can move to agile capabilities,” he said. “We have examples with our agile software development efforts at Catalyst Campus and the stand-up of the 15th Space Surveillance Squadron [or 15 SPSS] as a blended squadron between Space Operations Command [or SpOC] and AFRL. How do we apply that to other areas including hardware development as a focus area?”

The 15 SPSS is the blended squadron in Maui, Hawaii, and is unique as it fuses Space Domain Awareness Operations and SDA Research and Development. And the Catalyst Campus is an effort in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Williams said, it is used for agile software development in support of SpOC using DevSecOps software approaches.

Williams said they are looking to improve integration across all the major functions.

The fourth area is related to space logistics. Williams said they will be asking and answering questions such as: “how we can service satellites, how we can do upgrade of satellites, what does that capability mean? How do we partner with commercial to increase that capability and what can we achieve? Once we have the capability on orbit, how can we service and upgrade it to make sure that we either maintain or enhance the capability of those systems?”

These questions are related to the national strategy that was released in-space servicing assembly and manufacturing, or ISAM, Williams added.

Critical importance, external stakeholders

Maintaining and accelerating the technology advantage is of critical importance for AFRL and the technologies developed across the department.

“As we address challenges associated with the proliferation of technology in a highly competitive environment, it becomes even more critical that the Department of the Air Force keeps its technological edge,” Williams said. “And AFRL is the pointy end of the technology spear to make sure that it happens.”

The MALs are keenly aware of the challenges and capabilities necessary. They are tasked with finding the most efficient route to getting the capabilities into the field and in the operators’ hands.

“So, to maintain that technical advantage, it’s critical that we maintain that S&T pipeline, from basic research all the way to advanced capabilities and prototyping, and then delivering that to the acquisition communities,” Williams said. “You can then provide the critical capabilities to the warfighter, and AFRL has a role in almost that entire pipeline.”

One of the primary roles of the space mission area leads is to ensure communication with all field commands to rapidly transition the technology to Space Systems Command, Williams added. This will lead to a better understanding of the pain points for the operators at Space Operations Command and to provide support for Space Training and Readiness Command as new technologies transition.

“If you’ve ever received a new device, there’s a learning curve as to how you actually use that,” Williams explained. “And similarly, we have to make sure operators know how use the new technologies we are delivering to them.”

About AFRL

The Air Force Research Laboratory is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: