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National-security space programs have become so slow and costly that the U.S. faces the “self-inflicted surprise” of other nations being able to put capabilities into orbit much faster, says the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) director.

Formed in 1958 to prevent a repeat of the “technological surprise” of the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite launch, the Pentagon agency has embarked on a group of projects intended to make access to space quicker and cheaper. It is an effort to counter what Darpa Director Arati Prabhakar sees as a troubling development “to do with how slow and costly it is for us to do anything we need to do on orbit for national security purposes.”

The projects involve lower-cost, more-responsive launch systems for smaller satellites; building blocks that allow spacecraft to be produced more rapidly and cheaply; robotic technology to assemble, upgrade or repurpose satellites in orbit; and sensors to see and control what is going on in space.

Speaking at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' SciTech 2014 conference here last week, Prabhakar said that as commercial and foreign space activity increases, the U.S. is “freezing in place . . . in terms of our ability to react and do what we need to do quickly, cost-effectively in space.” This is putting at risk the precise, lethal warfare capability “that is a core element of our national security today . . . [but is] simply not possible without the assets we have in space,” she says.

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