Air Force aims for reliable launch services in spite of dramatic changes in commercial, military space

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PASADENA, California – Sending national security satellites into orbit is about to become more complicated.

In the past, launches largely fell into two categories: big, expensive satellites requiring extremely reliable rides and smaller satellites on slightly riskier rockets. In the future, the U.S. Air Force will launch satellites of all different sizes for customers with varying degrees of risk tolerance.

“The space vehicles we are going to be required to lift are going to be across this entire spectrum,” said Col. Jon Strizzi, chief engineer for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Directorate. “We’ll have to adapt.”

In spite of rapid pace of change in commercial and military space, the Air Force is committed to maintaining many of the processes that have made its launches successful to date, Strizzi said May 22 at the Space Tech Expo here. “As we move in to the future with new ways to produce things, operate them, different commercial landscapes, different military landscapes keeping the secret sauce for our success is going to be an interesting opportunity. We will work closely with our launch providers to do it.”

Through the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, the Air Force has sent more than $50 billion in assets into orbit on 72 successful launches, Strizzi said.

The Air Force’s Rocket Systems Launch Program, which is geared to smaller satellites traveling on orbital or suborbital rockets, has flown more than 700 payloads for various research and development, and technology demonstration missions, Strizzi said.

Strizzi said a key ingredient of the Air Force’s success has been its intimate knowledge of how each rockets is designed, tested, fabricated and operated.

Air Force leaders often discuss the need for innovation and agility in addressing challenges posed by potential adversaries. Those goals are pushing the Air Force toward smaller satellites and more responsive launch capabilities.

To meet the often conflicting requirements for speed and mission assurance, the Air Force is exploring greater use of parts that do not meet military standards, additive manufacturing, new propellants, collaboration with NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office, and combining the best practices of traditional space programs with elements of commercial “new space,” Strizzi said.

“We hustle but we do not hurry or rush,” he said. “We are not running with scissors. We do all the right steps along the way to ensure high reliability.”