SpaceX forces Air Force to revise launch mindset

by

This story was updated Sept. 20 to include Air Force future base plans for the autonomous flight safety system.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The emergence of Elon Musk’s SpaceX as a legitimate and competitive player in the space-launch arena has prompted the U.S. Air Force to re-evaluate the way it perceives launch operations, said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander, 45th Space Wing.

“SpaceX does not launch on schedule,” Monteith said Sept. 20 during a space warfighting panel at the annual Air Force Association Air Space Cyber Conference. “They launch on readiness.”

This launch-when-we’re-ready-to-go attitude has had an impact on SpaceX operational needs and costs, said Monteith, who also is director of the Air Force Eastern Range, Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.

“They have forced us — and I mean forced us — to get better, infinitely better, at what we do,” he said. “We are adopting commercial business practices and becom[ing] more efficient and more affordable.

“Working with them, we have been able to reduce our main launch footprint by 60 percent and reduce the cost of a single launch by over 50 percent,” he said. “Based on the autonomous flight safety system they developed with us they will help us get to 48 launches a year.”

That number includes launches for all Air Force facilities and right now, he said, the service is conducting about half that launch total annually.

The autonomous flight safety system replaces the ground-based mission flight control personnel and equipment with on-board positioning, navigation and timing sources and decision logic, the Air Force notes. The system is meant to reduce range spacelift cost, increase schedule predictability and availability, operational flexibility, and launch-slot flexibility.

The autonomous system is already fully installed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, officials said, and they want to expand.

“My goal is to make all ranges autonomous,” Gen John “Jay” Raymond, commander, Air Force Space Command, said Sept. 20 at another conference media roundtable briefing on space operations.

SpaceX simply does things differently, Monteith said. “And that’s good. We should not be the barrier between them and success.”

While SpaceX may be the commercial company having the biggest impact on how the Air Force approaches the way it does business, it is not the only company that is making the service look in the mirror.

“We are seeing other companies out there doing the same thing,” Col. Michael Hough, commander, 30th Space Wing and Western Range, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, said during the panel discussion.

“They are out in front of us and we’re catching up,” he said. “We’re listening to them.”