Hoeven, NRO Director Discuss Opportunities for UND Student Internships, R&D Partnerships for ISR Technologies

Senator Working to Partner National Reconnaissance Office with Grand Forks AFB, Grand Sky & UND; Helps Unveil New Hypersonic Vehicle for Sky Range Program

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – At the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Summit & Expo today, Senator John Hoeven outlined the partnerships that have built North Dakota into a premiere location for unmanned aircraft research, development, operations and training, as well as efforts to continue growing the state’s UAS ecosystem in the future. To this end, the senator brought Dr. Christopher Scolese, Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), to the summit to review the NRO’s satellite missions and discuss opportunities for the agency to:

  • Offer internships to University of North Dakota (UND) students in the Space Studies program. Hoeven hosted Dr. Scolese for a tour of UND yesterday to highlight how the program aligns with the NRO’s operations, stressing:
    • The need to maintain U.S. competitiveness in the space domain.
    • How UND can help meet the demand for qualified engineers and scientists in this field.
  • Partner with UND faculty and North Dakota companies to research and develop cutting-edge intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies.
    • Proposals can be submitted to the NRO under its Director’s Innovation Initiative.

Hoeven further discussed the potential for linking the NRO with missions at the Grand Forks Air Force Base and Grand Sky, like the Space Development Agency’s (SDA) low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite mission. The senator has been working to advance such collaborations since first speaking with Scolese in 2021, and he invited the NRO Director to attend the summit to keep moving the effort forward.

“When we started the UAS Summit sixteen years ago, innovation meant getting unmanned aircraft into our domestic airspace. Now, we have built partnerships that go well beyond our original vision, reaching all the way to space,” said Hoeven. “The NRO’s satellite missions are a natural fit with this region due to the unique UAS ecosystem we’ve built, the LEO satellite mission and UND’s world-class space studies programs. This has been made clear during Dr. Scolese’s visit to our state. The NRO wants UND students to intern with the agency, and it’s looking for research and development partners to advance new ISR technologies, which fall squarely in North Dakota’s expertise.”

Earlier in the day, Hoeven and Test Resource Management Center (TRMC) Director George Rumford helped unveil Stratolaunch’s Talon-A, a new hypersonic vehicle that will be part of the Sky Range program at Grand Sky. Currently, hypersonic missile development requires a new vehicle for each test, which increases costs and limits the number of tests held. The Talon-A is a re-usable unmanned aircraft that can carry various testing payloads inside the vehicle, helping improve the efficiency, flexibility and effectiveness of the Sky Range program.

Establishing Sky Range in North Dakota

In August, Hoeven and Rumford marked the arrival of all 20 Global Hawk Block 30 aircraft at Grand Sky for the TRMC’s Sky Range program. The transfer was possible due to an agreement that Hoeven secured with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown. As a member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, Hoeven:

  • Secured language supporting the Sky Range program and pressing the Air Force to make the Block 30 fleet available to Sky Range.
  • Hosted TRMC Director Rumford in North Dakota last year to see firsthand the opportunities that Grand Sky offers the agency and the Sky Range program.
  • Helped secure a contract for Northrop Grumman to also convert four Global Hawk Block 20s at Grand Sky into Range Hawks for use under the Sky Range program.

Currently, the Department of Defense (DoD) uses an aging fleet of ships deployed across a Pacific Ocean corridor to test hypersonic missiles, which is expensive, takes weeks to set up and signals the testing schedule to America’s adversaries. Sky Range would replace the ships with modified Global Hawks that could deploy quickly and increase testing capacity through the creation of additional testing corridors in the Pacific and elsewhere. 

Standing up SDA’s LEO Mission 

Last year, Hoeven, working with the SDA Director and Senator Kevin Cramer, secured Air Force approval to stand-up SDA’s new LEO satellite mission at Grand Forks. As a member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, Hoeven then worked to secure $18 million in Fiscal Year 2022 funding to establish SDA’s space networking centers. Over time, the mission could include not only operating SDA satellites, but also linking them with UAS, which would complement Grand Forks’ role in Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.  

Prior to this, Hoeven hosted SDA Director Derek Tournear in North Dakota to outline efforts to establish the new center and announce the new laser communications project, which SDA is pursuing in conjunction with General Atomics. The senator also joined Tournear to review launch operations at Cape Canaveral, where the SDA launched five satellites central to the space networking center and the General Atomics project.