ORLANDO — The U.S. Space Force is looking for ways to support future military operations with nontraditional space transportation systems and on-orbit logistics, the head of the national security launch program said Feb. 21.

The idea is to tap commercially available space vehicles and logistics services to fill the needs of military combatant commanders, said Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, program executive officer for assured access to space at the Space Systems Command.

Purdy’s office oversees the procurement of national security space launch services and he also runs the East Coast space launch ranges. 

He said the military can benefit from commercial capabilities to deliver cargo via rockets, deploy satellites to nontraditional orbits and refuel satellites to extend their operational life.

To promote this concept and strike up conversations with the private sector, the Space Systems Command hosted a “Space Mobility” conference Feb. 21 that drew about 1,100 executives from the space industry. 

“It’s hard to describe how fast we’ve matured and come along on the rocket cargo concepts and on-orbit maneuver and servicing and things like that,” Purdy told SpaceNews.

“Just two years ago, we weren’t even talking about or thinking about this,” he said. “And now we’re actually having a conference about it. We have to rapidly get after commercial capability,” he added. “It’s going to be an amazing future.”

A number of space launch companies over the past few years have signed agreements with the U.S. Transportation Command, the organization that oversees global military logistics operations, to explore “rocket cargo” concepts to transport equipment across Earth via space. Now the Space Force wants to figure out how to buy these nontraditional services. 

He said the Space Force traditionally has focused on launching payloads to orbit “but we didn’t really look at the end-to-end logistics piece.”

The Pentagon spends more than a billion dollars a year on launch services but it’s still too early to project what it might spend on rocket cargo deliveries or on-orbit services. Purdy said it will take some time to complete the analysis needed to justify budget requests, but in the meantime the goal is to send a message to the private sector that there will be a market.

“I would project that in the future there’s probably some kind of a separate line for this that’s different than launch,” he said. “But we have to do our homework to go justify all that stuff, do your analysis and prove in a combative budget session.”

There are commercial companies spending private capital to develop these types of services “so I’m not spending government money to do what they’re doing themselves,” Purdy said. “The question is how do I leverage that?” and build an acquisition organization to deliver that capability,” he added. “So that’s what we’re trying to do with rocket cargo and on-orbit services.” 

The Space Force also wants to talk to companies developing commercial space stations for NASA. These will be multi-use orbiting space stations and there might be a national security application that hasn’t yet been thought about, Purdy said.  

Satellite refueling 

Refueling services for military satellites could grow into a sizeable market as the United States needs maneuverable spacecraft, Purdy said. U.S. Space Command, responsible for ensuring the safety of the nation’s satellites, has warned that U.S. spacecraft are increasingly at a disadvantage because operators have to minimize maneuvers in order to preserve fuel.

Space Command has been asking for refuelable satellite for years and it is now finalizing “actual requirements language and documents,” he said. The command is essentially saying the U.S. “cannot do warfighting in the space domain with satellites that have to last 15 years so we have to measure every drop of fuel … That’s a horrible place to put the warfighters in.”

Purdy pointed out recent comments by Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command, highlighting U.S. satellites’ lack of mobility. “We don’t build a ship or a tank or an aircraft and say you’re going to operate this for the next 15 or 20 years and you need to plan your fueling and all your operations based on the fact that you’re never going to refuel these ever again.”

The Space Force will be closely watching NASA’s planned On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing 1 (OSAM-1) mission to robotically refuel Landsat 7, a satellite that wasn’t designed to be serviced. In this mission planned for 2025, NASA is “basically going to punch a hole in the fuel tank and try to fuel it,” said Purdy. “I’m super interested in that, obviously, because if that’s successful, we can prove that technology and go refuel a bunch of our satellites.” 

The other side of the equation is building the next generation of satellites so they’re easily refueled. The next step in that area will be to agree on a standard so the industry can build interoperable refueling hardware. Purdy said the Space Systems Command’s systems integration office is currently studying that issue. 

Rocket cargo

Purdy said he is in discussions with U.S. Transportation Command on forming a Space Force “sustainment operations and logistics” component to support the rocket cargo program, both for suborbital and orbital point-to-point cargo delivery.

“We absolutely would buy this as a service,” Purdy said. “We have no plans to go lay down billions of dollars to build out spaceports and launch pads and go buy these kinds of rockets,” he added. “Our desire is that commercial industry gets to a point where they can responsibly deliver military goods and logistics.”

Right now SpaceX — which won a major contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory — is the leading contender “but there are other companies looking at that as well,” he said. 

SpaceX has said it plans to launch 200 to 300 times a year in the future, a number that got Purdy’s attention. “If they’re going to do that, the cost of launch is getting pretty negligible at that point, and that’s really intriguing,” he said. “From a rocket cargo perspective, the cost could end up being lower than delivering cargo on a military C-17 aircraft.” 

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...