U.S. Army Shelves One Small Rocket Program, Pursues Another

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The U.S. Army’s efforts to field a rocket for launching small, low-orbiting satellites on short notice continue to come up empty, even as several commercially oriented companies pursue similar capabilities, the service’s top space official said.

The Army’s latest effort, a May 2014 request for information from industry on responsive launchers, has drawn no viable responses to date, according to Lt. Gen. David Mann, commander of Army Space and Missile Defense Command here. That survey was hatched while the Army was still pursuing a separate project in partnership with NASA called SWORDS, or the Soldier-Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space.

Speaking Aug. 12 during the Space and Missile Defense Symposium here, Mann said the SWORDS program, intended to field a liquid-methane-fueled rocket able to launch satellites weighing 25 kilograms on 24 hours’ notice for $1 million, has been shelved.

In March 2013, the Army awarded Quantum International, based here, a $19 million contract to develop the SWORDS vehicle, with an orbital test flight scheduled for summer 2014. KT Engineering and Teledyne Brown Engineering, both of Huntsville, were subcontractors on the program.

But the test flight never happened, and the contract expired in October 2014.

“We’ve kind of fallen short, quite frankly,” Mann said. “We did not really achieve the results we’re looking for. We really did not feel that it was moving from where it needed to go. … That’s the reason we’re trying to partner with industry. That’s the reason we’re trying to figure out what other possibilities are out there.”

Without elaborating, Mann pointed to cost restraints and specific requirements as part of the problem.

The Army has been interested in a small-satellite launch capability since at least 2006, according to slides from a June 2014 industry day that followed the request for information.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Mann, head of the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command. Credit: C. Shamwell
“We’ve kind of fallen short, quite frankly,” said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Mann, head of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command. “We did not really achieve the results we’re looking for. We really did not feel that it was moving from where it needed to go. … That’s the reason we’re trying to partner with industry. That’s the reason we’re trying to figure out what other possibilities are out there.” Credit: C. Shamwell

The lack of a small rocket has forced the Army to rely on piggyback launch opportunities for a pair of nanosatellite programs it has in development. Three Kestrel Eye imaging satellites are slated to fly aboard an upcoming launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket — currently grounded following a failure — while three experimental communications satellites are slated to launch on a National Reconnaissance Office mission in September.

“A dedicated nanosatellite launcher will extend the miniature electronics revolution into space by enabling combatant commands to have a launch-on-demand capability,” said an Army/ NASA fact sheet on SWORDS.

One of the ideas behind SWORDS was to focus on commercial, off-the-shelf hardware. Mann mentioned the SWORDS program in congressional testimony in March 2014, but just two months later the Army was asking industry for alternative ideas.

For the latest program, which does not have a formal name, the Army envisions awarding multiple study contracts, each for as long as three years, and then selecting at least one for an orbital flight test.

According to briefing slides from the June 2014 industry day, the service is open to solid, liquid or hybrid rockets and views the Missile Defense Agency as a potential partner.

When asked about responses to the request for information solicitation, Mann said, “Nothing yet.”

But Mann said the Army has not given up on finding a low-cost responsive launch capability and is interested in continuing its partnership with NASA.

“I think we will find a way ahead,” he said. “I think everyone is really challenged right now by the fiscal environment. It’s a question of when, not if.”

In the commercial space industry, the story is different. Several startup companies are developing small rockets in hopes of tapping what has been a hot commercial market for cubesats and other nanosatellites in recent years. These include LauncherOne, part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company, as well as Rocket Lab and Generation Orbit.