Op-Ed | Matching our launch infrastructure to affordable and resilient space systems

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“Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the change in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.” — Giulio Douhet, “The Command of the Air”

As the National Security Space community implements resiliency and disaggregation, and as we take advantage of the rapid acceleration of technology, it appears we are moving toward smaller, shorter life, and more numerous satellite programs. It also allows us to turn large, vulnerable critical nodes into less complex, faster to develop, cheaper to deploy, affordable to proliferate, and easier to provide technology insertion architectures.

The key point is that our current architectural approach to affordable/resilient space architectures will not necessarily be a path to the additional goal of affordability unless we do something about the path to lower cost launch. If we do not change the current cost of launch, it could be that the total life cycle cost of a disaggregated and proliferated system may not provide the savings we see when just looking at the space segment. On the other hand, even if the cost savings are not as anticipated, cost efficiency cannot be the primary goal. The goal has to be combat-effectiveness. We need to be resilient in an ever increasing threat environment, and we need rapid technology insertion because of the speed our adversaries are demonstrating with their space systems. We “proliferate” our airplanes because we know some of them will be lost in combat or otherwise non-mission-capable so we buy more than any one Operations Plan requires. To date we have not done this with our space systems (even though the loss of a single satellite is a far more significant architectural impact than that of a single aircraft) — this needs to change.

To achieve the rapid technology insertions necessary to compete with our adversaries, the satellite vehicle (SV) design life needs to be shorter and lower cost. Key to any such move is matching launch strategy with new satellite architectures.

The current government operational SV costs are long-lived and extremely expensive, so without major change in design approach, it is going to be very difficult for NSS leadership to accept the risk of failure in launch. But as the government’s new architectures drive down the size and cost of the next generation of satellites, the cost of launch needs to come down substantially.

One of the basic premises of any launch system design is that increasing the launch rate will drive a decrease in overall launch costs as the substantial fixed costs of the system are spread over a larger number of missions.

Fortunately, the transition to more resilient and disaggregated space systems will also drive the need for an increased launch rate to deploy and sustain the new constellations. This means that as satellite constellations become more affordable and smaller, the change will drive the launch rate up and drive launch costs down, but that may not be enough to meet the affordability goals that will certainly be levied on any new national security space (NSS) program.

A drive to develop smaller, lower-cost boosters, coupled with lower-cost launch pad infrastructure and associated facilities for faster turnaround with increased launch rates, will be critical to enabling the higher risk tolerance satellite architectures.

Inherent with this risk tolerant posture will be acceptance in a decrease of the overall government mission assurance posture, both on the satellite and launch vehicle that could possibly result in an increased mission failure rate.

In the light-lift arena, commercial companies such as Virgin Galactic, Rocket Lab, Firefly, Vector, Stratolaunch, and Avio are looking at affordable launch for very small SV’s (e.g. cubesats up to smallsats approximately 300Kg). The direction of these efforts is focused on low Earth orbit (LEO). Although most Air Force space missions are in geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) — exceptions being GPS in medium Earth orbit and some intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in LEO — it is the trend that is important. That’s not to say that we won’t someday move to very different architectures and proliferate them in easier-to-reach orbits, but that is clearly not going to happen in the near term.

It appears that Orbital ATK’s development of a family of Next Generation Launch (NGL) vehicles designed to fully encompass medium through heavy-lift may have some light and medium-lift options in the future. Though this remains in development and launch costs have not been revealed at this time, the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) is pursuing NGL certification in preparation for launch service agreement source selection.

Additionally, the Minotaur family encompasses small to medium-lift (Minotaur 4 can launch payloads in the 500 to 2000Kg class), but since it uses government provided retired missile engines, there is a lot of controversy about its potential impact on the emerging, commercially developed small launch vehicle industry. (There is U.S. Code — law, not just policy — that prohibits use of excess intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) motors for commercial launch; only national security launches are allowed. The strictly commercial version of Minotaur 4 (Minotaur-C), that does not use the excess ICBM motors but newly poured solid engines, is not cost competitive. The Government Accountability Office is working on a study of how to sell these engines to the competitive market place for U.S. launches.)

For the near/mid-term, we need the cost of the GEO-capable rockets to come down, and a new focus on the abandoned medium-lift class of rockets.

A critical aspect of future space architectures will be the ability to rapidly reconstitute space capabilities with ground spares (either of the actual payload or of a lower cost lesser capability option, depending on the specific strategy for that mission), requiring responsive launch, another key change in the launch paradigm.

Today large launch systems perform operations on the same launch pad as quickly as weeks in exceptional cases. The future cycle times from call-up notification to launch must be driven down to support the reconstitution of the constellation. Clearly this is not impossible, nor in fact a new concept; launch systems such as the Pegasus, can go with seven days’ notice.

One concept that will be new to many is procuring launch hardware in advance of need. This will take a different mindset in Washington since current policy does not allow the Air Force to buy, in advance of need, a booster, nor have operational spares been supported in recent budget acts, even though we have this mindset for other weapon systems.

As we move to a fundamentally different strategy for our future space architecture, we need a launch strategy that matches it.

Future architectures must drive:

  1. Resiliency in response to threats against our space capabilities
  2. Smaller space systems
  3. Rapid technology insertion to our space system architectures
  4. Rapid reconstitution of space capabilities

Our launch capabilities need to adapt with:

  1. Smaller launch systems for smaller space systems (both light-lift and medium-lift)
  2. Less complex launch and range infrastructure
  3. Ready operational spares — both space and ground
  4. Launch systems that can be turned around in seven days or less
  5. Commercial launch service without government mission assurance oversight
  6. Possible use of allied launch systems
  7. Policies and practices promoting launch systems with lower cost and higher tolerance for launch failure

As we move to these smaller SVs and the need for lower cost launch, multiple approaches could be used to meet cost reductions such as multi-manifesting or launching individual satellites on smaller, lower cost launchers such as those being funded through NASA’s Venture Class Launch Systems (VLCS) launch vehicle program.

The issue with multi-manifesting is that when that many satellites are aggregated for launch on a single launch vehicle, the operational value of the combined capability drives a high reliability launcher, and this also results in no spares, and a lack of responsiveness and flexibility.

There are already a small number of very important payloads that demand heavy-lift with very high reliability, such as crewed missions, deep space missions, exploration (e.g. Mars) and ISR missions, but this demand is inherently low and is not likely to disappear in the near term. This might actually drive the need for a mixed approach for future launch vehicle acquisition until the large expensive heritage satellite systems are replaced by a new architecture of smaller vehicles.

Apparent U.S. direction

It appears that the government continues to focus the majority of its resources on developing large, low-risk launch vehicles. The U.S. has moved to larger, more expensive launch vehicles and away from smaller systems (both light-lift and medium-lift) such as Delta 2, Falcon 1, etc. Deep space exploration cannot be tackled without the power that bigger rockets provide.

NASA has embarked on a likely decades-long, multibillion-dollar program to develop the Space Launch System rocket, the Orion crew capsule and its associated launch facilities. United Launch Alliance (ULA) has proposed a new rocket called the Vulcan, which would eventually replace its current intermediate- and heavy-lift vehicles. The long-awaited Falcon Heavy, which is scheduled for its first demonstrations flight late this year, may be key to SpaceX’s plans to ramp up its defense business, send tourists around the moon and launch its first uncrewed mission to Mars. There have been some discussions that a downsized version of the company’s Mars rocket may be the answer to the NSS’s heavy lift requirements.

One analyst estimated that companies together are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into large rockets. Orbital ATK intends to expand its lineup with its first intermediate – and heavy-lift rockets, known for now as NGL. SpaceX says the price of a Falcon Heavy launch will be at least $90 million, versus $62 million for its Falcon 9 (though the company has charged higher prices for government missions).

Jeff Bezos unveiled plans for a heavy-lift rocket called New Glenn to be built by his space firm, Blue Origin. The rocket, which will have two-stage and three-stage versions, is designed to launch commercial satellites and to take humans into space. Analysts have speculated that Blue Origin may also eventually want to compete in the national security launch market.

Current international direction

Foreign boosters represent an interesting opportunity for the US as a backup for NSS payloads. While it would be easier to justify the use of a French/European vehicle than a Russian rocket, security concerns with intelligence community payloads would be a major issue. While the current National Space Transportation Policy allows for the use of foreign launch vehicles in cooperative programs, it in general requires the launch of NSS payloads on U.S.-built launch vehicles, so a revision of the NSTP would be required. It would be good to have a “white tail” philosophy for our satellites — standard mechanical/electrical/data interfaces that allow it to be launched on any available booster. What if the Cape is targeted? Go to Kourou! Europe’s Arianespace can use its Ariane 5 heavy launcher to take two medium satellites into space.

Other international players appear to be dealing with the same launch issues and in fact, have current programs and initiatives in advance of the US. Russia, in addition to pursuing affordable light lift with the Soyuz 2, has also begun development of medium lift in the form of the Soyuz-5 rocket, with a first launch planned for 2022. The Soyuz-5 will serve medium-class payloads more cost-effectively than existing Russian vehicles. To reduce launch costs China is planning to launch small satellites from ships using a version of the Long March 11, launching from a converted freighter. The Japanese have started work on a small launch vehicle smaller than the existing Epsilon rocket but bigger than the SS-520, with a projected payload capacity of 100 kilograms for $9.1 million. Additionally, the European Space Agency has, with Italy, developed the Vega rocket as a smaller, more affordable launch system.

Proposed future direction

We need to evolve on a path that allows the retention of at least the existing level of heavy lift. There seems to be an ongoing need for this, even though frequency of the need is minimal. However, future evolving technologies should allow the next generation of these rockets to be lower cost, better performing systems. These technologies include lighter, cheaper composite materials, new welding technology, cleaner, safer fuels, and additive manufacturing. In addition, a review of the Air Force mishap regulations as it applies to space systems needs to be undertaken.

Every Program Manager and Systems Project Director (SPO), along with SMC, Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), and STRATCOM Commanders know that any launch or early orbit failure will be conspicuously visible in the eyes of Congress and the public, and that would drive an Accident Review Board where he/she will have to justify every decision they made along the way, the high-risk, high-reward approach will be difficult to pursue. However, the time involved in the reviews and scrutiny necessary drives a process that can approach 18 months, and we have current architectures that are so cost constrained and consequently fragile that we cannot be without any single satellite.

We also need a path to responsive, less expensive light and medium lift. These systems can have a greater tolerance for failure, but, we need to be able to turn launches in seven days.

Conclusion

There are clearly two options for launching smaller satellites. One, launch them on purpose-built-light-and medium-lift boosters, or two, launch many at a time on heavy-lift boosters or as secondary payloads. Going the path of heavy-lift ignores some realities. Future operational systems may require very different orbital locations, so aggregating them will likely be impractical. Secondly, a large low-risk launch vehicle required to launch multiple operational satellites is expensive, complicated to build and operate, and therefore will likely be very high reliability, again driving up costs. With this type of launch vehicle, acquiring spares in advance in today’s fiscal environment is unlikely, making responsiveness non-existent.

Therefore, to achieve the goals for our future space architectures while continuing to support our legacy systems, the government needs to support the development of responsive, inexpensive launch capabilities, where trading risk tolerance for lower cost is possible while ensuring the continued existence of larger low-risk launch systems until the nation’s operational systems can transition to new architectures.

The AFSPC Space Architecture Group is beginning to investigate this and DIUx is looking for responsive low-cost launch capabilities for small satellites with a goal of being able buy a launch the same way you buy commercial shipping for package with FedEx or UPS.

To actually get to the point where we have low-cost, responsive launch available for the next generation of defense space systems, the NSS community needs to ensure that along with the significant investment it is making into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle new entrant programs, it also supports the development of small and medium launch systems that will be an enabler for resilient spacecraft architectures of the future. This needs to be an integrated effort for new satellites that are tolerant at the constellation level to launch failures.

Tom “Tav” Taverney is a retired Air Force Major General and former Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command. He has served on SMC and Space Command advisory boards, and has supported numerous acquisition and launch system reviews. He has received an Air Force Scientific Achievement Award, a Legion of Merit, a Distinguished Service Medal and a Schriever Fellowship.

In 2010 he was inducted into the “Space Operations Hall of Fame”. In 2014 he received the General Bernard Schriever lifetime achievement award. In 2016 he received an Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Award, and was also inducted into the Air Force Space Command Hall of Fame.