Updated April 2: The mission launched April 2 at 10:29 a.m. Eastern. SpaceX scrubbed launch March 30. Abort called three seconds before planned liftoff

WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency, formed inside the Pentagon in 2019 to help accelerate the use of commercial space technology, is preparing to launch on March 30 its inaugural fleet of 10 satellites. 

The launch of SDA’s Tranche 0 satellites — scheduled to lift off Thursday morning from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California — marks the beginning of the deployment of what the agency calls a “proliferated warfighter space architecture.”

“This is a pretty exciting time,” SDA Director Director Derek Tournear told reporters March 29. “The Space Development Agency was established just over four years ago this month, and tomorrow will be our first launch.”

SDA in October was transferred from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to the U.S. Space Force.

By the standards of Pentagon procurements, getting satellites to orbit within three years of ordering them and during a global pandemic would be a remarkable accomplishment for the young agency. SDA has adopted a fast-track approach to build a large missile-warning and data-transport constellation in low Earth orbit. 

SpaceX launch to polar orbit

The Tranche 0 satellites will fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to a polar orbit at an altitude of about 1,000 kilometers and deployed in two orbital planes.

The mission will carry eight data-transport satellites made by York Space Systems that will be part of a mesh communications network known as Transport Layer, and two infrared sensor satellites made by SpaceX and Leidos to detect and track hypersonic missiles in flight.

This launch was originally targeted for December but was delayed due to an anomaly in York’s satellites.

York Space Systems won a $94 million contract in August 2020 to build 10 satellites for SDA’s Transport Layer Tranche 0. The two remaining satellites will launch in June. SpaceX in October 2020 won a $149 million contract to build four Tracking Layer satellites. The two remaining will launch in June as well. 

The Tranche 0 satellites will be operated from ground stations run by the Naval Research Laboratory

A new model for satellite procurements

SDA’s program director for Tranche 0 Mike Eppolito told reporters on Wednesday that getting to this point was challenging due to supply chain problems experienced across the entire space industry during the covid pandemic.

What helped was that “our contracts office is incredibly fast,” he said. “Our finance office is incredibly fast at getting money out the door to solve problems.” 

Frank Calvelli, the Space Force’s top procurement official who oversees SDA, has championed the agency’s approach to buying small satellites under fixed-price contracts from multiple vendors.

The Transport Layer satellites are estimated to cost about $15 million each, and the Tracking Layer satellites about $40 million each. 

Speaking earlier this year about SDA’s Tranche 0 launch, Calvelli said that once the agency demonstrates it can deliver capabilities to DoD, it will serve as a model for other programs. “I think once we have that success, we’ll see this methodology take off like gangbusters,” he said. 

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...