Air Force opens high-tech space lab at Kirtland

Col. Eric Felt, center, director for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, greets guests at a ribbon-cutting for a new space lab at Kirtland Air Force Base. (Britianie Teston/KAFB Photographer)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

It’s an aptly named, high-tech space lab with a need for speed.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate on Tuesday cut the ribbon on the Rapid Architecture Prototyping and Integration Development, or RAPID, Laboratory, a 14,000-square-foot addition to an existing lab on Kirtland Air Force Base.

The new laboratory will bring together researchers from AFRL, the Space Warfighting Analysis Center, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office and Space Systems Command in a building designed as a one-stop shop of sorts for new satellites, where researchers can quickly test new ideas and technologies.

The building was designed to take an idea on a white board efficiently through digital engineering, model and simulation, construction and operational tests, all within the same area on base, said Col. Jon Luminati, who leads AFRL’s Space Vehicle Directorate’s Integrated Experiments and Evaluation Division.

“The building is perfectly named the RAPID building, and it is all about going fast,” said Col. Eric Felt, director of AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate. “Velocity … says how fast and where you’re going. And, really, that’s what this building to me is all about. How can we innovate faster than our peer-pacing competitor, which is China. And, to do that, we have to pull out all the stops.”

The new lab cost about $7.3 million. Studio Southwest Architects was the project architect and Eagle Eye LLC was the construction contractor, according to an AFRL news release.

The lab has both secure and non-secure spaces. In the secure space on the second floor, blue lights are positioned along the walls. They turn on if someone without a top secret security clearance is on the floor, an indicator that researchers should shut their doors and keep conversation to a minimum.

Luminati said that, because the emphasis is on cutting-edge new technologies, the lab will be a good location for testing small satellites. In many cases, those are built because they are a quicker and cheaper way to test details for larger satellites. For example, the lab may produce a small satellite to test how the equipment will respond when confronted with massive temperature swings or radiation in space.

“It’s small, and so it’s cheap, and I can build it fast. And I can prove that the technology works,” Luminati said. “So, those small satellites allow me to go much, much faster because I can take risks, right? They’re easier to assemble. And I can integrate a whole bunch of technology and do it at a faster cadence.”

The cutting-edge work in space being done at KAFB is focused on research and development. That long-range approach means local space researchers’ day-to-day activities are not affected much by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Luminati said. But he noted that, late last year, Russia tested an anti-satellite missile against one of its own satellites, which highlights how important the space domain work being done at Kirtland is to national security.

The State Department said Nov. 15 that the destructive Russian test created thousands of pieces of debris that will threaten all nations’ security, economic and scientific interests for decades to come.

“It just underscores how we need to be able to maintain a technical lead and technical edge because we so heavily rely on space-based capabilities. And we can’t assume that they’re a sanctuary anymore,” he said. “We spent the last couple decades engaged in the Middle East and Central Asia. Now, you’re dealing with sort of a new class of player, right, who has the ability to sort of compete in that (space) domain that the folks we focused on (in) the last decades had not been able to do. And so it really does show the importance of the space domain.”

Editor’s note: The article has corrected the name of the architecture firm on the project.

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