Air Force wants to become a bigger player in the small launch industry
WASHINGTON — Space billionaire Sir Richard Branson, founder of the suborbital spaceflight company Virgin Galactic, recently visited the Pentagon and met with Air Force leaders to talk about how the company might in the future do business with the U.S. Air Force.
“We are tracking what companies are doing,” Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper told reporters on Wednesday at the Pentagon. “I think small launch is going to be a big deal.”
Virgin Orbit, a spinoff of Virgin Galactic, developed a satellite launch vehicle called LauncherOne that will be deployed from a Boeing 747 aircraft. The company is preparing to fly a small test satellite for the Defense Department later this year.
Launch services for small satellites are being offered by companies like Virgin Orbit, Rocket Lab, Stratolaunch and others. This is a capability that the Air Force wants to have access to, Roper said. “It looks a lot more responsive,” he noted. “You’re talking about putting a satellite up from a large airliner. That’s something you could imagine having a runway alert, and being able to put up [a satellite] on the day you need it.”
Roper said he wants the Air Force to work more closely with the small launch industry as the military embraces the idea of “responsive space” — using small satellites for missions that traditionally have been done by large spacecraft. “We are interested in small launch as a capability but we are also interested in using small satellites we can put into orbit,” Roper added. “If you lose a satellite, you put another one up at the time you need it. You don’t put it up earlier because you’re just giving an adversary time to think about how to take it out.”
Another senior Pentagon official, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord, spoke recently about the military’s interest in small satellites and small launch services. Lord in November visited Virgin Orbit in Long Beach, California. She told reporters that the Pentagon should engage with commercial small launch providers to make sure those services are available for the military when they are needed.
Roper said he had not spoken with Lord about this issue but said “it would be a great topic” to discuss. “I’m very excited about small launch,” said Roper. He noted that national security launches of large satellites remain the primary focus. “We have to keep our eye on national security launch,” he said. “The time of not putting large satellites up in orbit is certainly not going to come to an end in the foreseeable future.”
The Air Force meanwhile is looking for new ways to attract space startups and commercial businesses to pitch ideas to the military. But Roper acknowledged the Air Force has to do a better job at this. “The challenge is that we don’t really train acquisition professionals to think of their programs as a mechanism to grow companies in a strategic partnership,” he said. “We train people to manage cost, schedule, performance and requirements from warfighters. We’re going to need them to think more like venture capitalists, business developers or investors.”
Capabilities like small launch services and other dual-use space technologies will not come from the defense industrial complex but from the commercial sector, Roper said. “We have to be able to work with these companies and understand them,” he said. “If we go in and take our defense acquisition speak, we might as well be speaking greek.”
Roper said no one specific office in the Air Force, for now, will be in charge of managing small launch procurement. Right now most small launch activities are run by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. “They’re doing a good job on it,” he said. “But I don’t think it has to belong to one organization. Now we want to try to grow as much competition as we can. I think it’s too early to say ‘here’s who should own small launch for ever for the Air Force. I definitely think we need to be a loud voice and a player.”
Industry executives have expressed frustration about the Pentagon’s acquisition process to buy commercial space services like small launch. Mandy Vaughn, president of Virgin’s subsidiary Vox Space, said a problem for the industry is the military’s requirements and procurement process. “Nobody is really programmed to have payloads geographically dispersed and ready to go on a moment’s notice largely because the launch infrastructure to take advantage of it doesn’t exist,” Vaugh said during a panel discussion earlier this month at a conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
When the military buys launch as a service, it is usually still procured on an “identified payload by payload basis,” she said. “How do we break that up? Having all of your launches procured based on an identified payload stifles DoD from being able to take advantage of disaggregation, and the benefits of small satellites aren’t realized because of that procurement structure. How do we decouple the procurement of the access to space from what you need to put up in space?”