A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster being returned to port aboard a drone ship following the JCSAT-14 Mission in May, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON – The U.S. military could have access to a robust, competitive, low-cost launch market within five years with the proper investments, a group of experts said May 8 at an event hosted by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“We’re at a unique moment in time that overlaps technology, policy, business, and national security,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Schilling, chief of the Commander’s Action Group at the Air Force’s Air University. “When launch is reduced to the point where it’s not a $5 billion program, you can really do some great things…Low-cost reusable launch systems offer the potential for us to do many of the same old missions much faster and at much more affordable price points.”

Schilling lead the writing of a report for Air University detailing the opportunities low-cost launch could provide to the military — and detailing some ideas on how to achieve it.

One idea that’s become popular recently is public-private partnerships, with both the government and industry funding development of new systems.

But making that work is going to require some work in Washington to change how the government looks at space operations and partners with the commercial sector, said Charles Miller, president of the NexGen Space consultancy.

“Our entire system for licensing and regulating launch is set up for infrequent, expensive occasional launch, launches-per-month,” Miller said.  “What we’re looking at is going to launches-per-week and eventually even launches-per-day. And it breaks everything in the regulatory structure.”

That’s going to require leadership, Miller said, arguing that low-cost launch should be one of the priorities for the White House’s soon-to-be-reestablished National Space Council, as well as for congressional leaders.

Organization is going to be the hard part. The technology is already “feasible and economically affordable to accelerate development of fully reusable launch vehicles that could create a three-times cost reduction,” Miller said.

He pointed to the Air Force’s secretive X-37B reusable spaceplane, which landed May 7 after 717 days in orbit.

“The X-37 fully reusable space plane landed,” Miller said. “It is a Mach 25 reusable spaceship. That is the hardest technical part of building a fully reusable launch vehicle: managing Mach 25 reentry and then turning around and doing it again.”

But Miller argued that taking advantage of the current opportunities is going to require leadership from an organization that doesn’t exist yet in the Pentagon.

“We need an organization that’s not totally there,” he said. “We need an organization that has the right culture to understand private industry and partner with them. It needs to have the right authorities…It needs to have the right leadership and vision to go exercise this plan. We did not find any existing organization that has all the right qualities now, so we recommended creating a purpose-built organization to go execute this strategy.”

Schilling said the study was “not an indictment in any way shape or form” of the work of the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office in New Mexico.

ORS was originally designed to take advantage of emerging technology to benefit military space launches. Schilling said the office is “solving operational challenges that exist right now that warfighters need to benefit from.”

Miller added that ORS’s focus on solving specific Air Force problems means the envisioned new organization can follow “the original vision of ORS” focused on “disruptive innovation” in partnership with industry.

Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten, director of strategic plans at the Air Force Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements – and moderator of the panel – said the issues go beyond one particular service. There are immense potential benefits that could be reaped not just by the Defense Department, but by the commercial and civilian sectors as well, and it’s going to require close cooperation between all branches.

“We have to innovate. I think we all would agree in this room that it’s time to innovate this particular portion of our defense,” he said. “This is not an Air Force discussion, this is a national discussion. Dare I say, this is a whole-of-nation discussion, and it’s actually a whole-of-society discussion.”

Four companies

Miller said he foresees several companies getting into the reusable rocket market in the near future — likely within the next five years.

“We discovered there’s at least four credible companies that can put the skin in the game and have the technical ability, so they’ll have a competition,” Miller told SpaceNews following the panel discussion.

Two companies have already publicly declared their interest in reusable spacecraft — SpaceX and Blue Origin — but Miller declined to comment on what other organizations said they’re developing reusable technology.

Why now?

Low-cost launch is not a new idea, but Hoyt Davidson of Near Earth — an investment firm focused on aerospace — argued that the time is right for the industry to come into its own. He pointed to differences between the present and the 1990s when much of the commercial space sector collapsed.

“What’s different this time? I get that question a lot,” he said.

Technology is a primary factor, Davidson argued, saying that “we’ve had 20 years of Moore’s Law” that reshaped the way computers are used. Electronic miniaturization and modernization now allow for much more capability in a satellite. Communications get more bandwidth, and imaging gets more pixels per dollar of investment, making units far more efficient than they previously have been.

Likewise, satellite production techniques have grown, adding new technology like additive manufacturing to drive down costs and speed up production time.

But perhaps the biggest difference, he said, is that the demand for space services is larger than it ever has been, with sectors like broadband communications growing exponentially among consumers.

“All those companies back then [in the 90s] maybe totaled 1,000 satellites. Now we’re talking about 20,000,” Davidson said. “Twenty years of technology advancement has made a difference. Markets are better, markets are bigger, more capital is available. I truly believe — having lived through the 90s and seen all those bankruptcies — that it is different this time and we are at a tipping point.”

Growth in the reusable launch sector could lead to first-stage boosters that could be reused 100 times, and second stages reused 25 times, Davidson said, adding that daily launches might be needed to keep up with multiple companies planning large constellations.

“At our last count we were somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000 satellites that are on the drawing board,” he said. “This is against a current launch rate of about 25 satellites a year. We’re talking about orders of magnitude increases.”

Phillip Swarts is the military space reporter for SpaceNews. He previously covered space and advanced technology for Air Force Times, the Justice Department for The Washington Times, and investigative journalism for the Washington Guardian;...