The Tetra-1 experimental microsatellite launched in November 2022 on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Credit: Millennium Space Systems

Designed and delivered for the U.S. Space Force in just 15 months, the small satellite catapults the space industry into a new era of rapid R&D.

It took the United States eight years to design and launch Apollo 11, which finally put humans on the moon in 1969. More recently, NASA spent five years creating its Landsat 9 Earth observation satellite, which was conceived in October 2016 and launched in September 2021. Even the private-sector space pioneer SpaceX took nearly a decade to launch its first spacecraft, the SpaceX Dragon, in 2010.

Although space access and technology have improved exponentially in the last 60 years, the pace of innovation has remained remarkably slow.

That was OK when space was aspirational. After decades of exploration and engineering, however, even the most outlandish space fantasies are now within the realm of possibility. The result is a wide-open frontier that will yield new opportunities, but also new threats—especially in the realm of national security, where speed is the ultimate competitive advantage.

“The faster that we can acquire, develop and field systems, the better off we’re going to be,” Col Joseph J. Roth, Innovation and Prototyping senior materiel leader for the U.S. Space Force Space Systems Command. “It’s widely known that our adversaries are out there, and that they’re developing systems and capabilities that take away our strategic advantage in space. We need to not just meet that threat; we need to surpass it.”

What the United States needs, companies like Millennium Space Systems are eager to deliver. In April 2020, it completed the design, production and integration of its Tetra-1 small satellite prototype—just 15 months after the U.S. Space Force commissioned it. For government and industry alike, it’s a milestone that portends a new age of rapid research and development wherein critical space assets and capabilities will take months to realize instead of years.

Accelerating Acquisitions

Launched November 1 aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rideshare mission for the U.S. Space Force, Tetra-1 is an experimental small sat that the Space Force will use to conduct various prototype missions in and around geostationary orbit—a high-altitude orbit where many of America’s most valuable satellites operate. It was the first project awarded in 2018 by Space Systems Command’s Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC), which the Space Force established in 2017 with the goal of diversifying its supplier base.

By utilizing other transaction authority (OTA) contracts—a type of contract within the Department of Defense (DoD) that allows for rapid prototyping outside the bounds of traditional federal acquisition regulation (FAR) processes—SpEC can solicit bids from a wide swathe of vendors, including commercial space startups and small businesses for which military contracts aren’t typically feasible.

“It enables industrial growth and allows us to harness innovation from small businesses and non-traditional vendors that would not normally work with the DoD in the past because they were under the impression that we’re too hard to work with,” explained Roth, who said OTAs create not only increased opportunity for industry, but also increased speed and agility for military buyers.

“Contracting mechanisms like this enable us to innovate in ways we never thought possible,” he continued. “With this amazing tool … we’re able to put prototypes on contract within 90 days of RFP release and deliver capabilities at relevant speeds in order to determine whether we want to pursue them more in the future.”

If Space Force does, in fact, want to pursue capabilities further, operationalizing them is easier and faster once they’ve been proven through an OTA contract. “Funding permitting, the transition from OTA into a major program of record is not nearly as hard as if you were using a regular FAR process,” Roth said.

But rapid contracting for assets like Tetra-1 isn’t just about being faster. Also, it’s about being better. “A lot of legacy systems take years and years to build. And by the time you field them, they could be obsolete or unsustainable,” Roth said. “The faster we can put things on orbit, the more relevant the technology.”

Working Faster, Smarter

Rapid contracting is game-changing. But it’s not enough. In order to achieve the speed and strategic advantage that space demands, vendors that receive contracts quickly must accelerate their own processes in order to maintain velocity.

That’s how Millennium delivered Tetra-1 in just 15 months—60% faster than previous missions.

“What makes Millennium unique is that we’re really fast, and Tetra-1 is a prime example of that,” said Millennium CEO Jason Kim. “Speed is in our DNA … It’s in our culture to come up with innovative solutions that nobody else has come up with, and to pass the cost and schedule savings on to our customers.”

Kim attributes Tetra-1’s remarkable pace to several speed-inducing strengths, the first of which is Millennium’s talent. “Our employees are calculated risk-takers who are able to take new ideas and creatively implement them to move faster,” he said. “These are experienced people who have learned valuable lessons working at other places. They apply those lessons learned to our programs in order to work more quickly.”

Agile methodologies also are key. “We have adopted agile processes used in software and hardware development, and that has helped us accelerate our timelines,” continued Kim, who cited as yet another advantage vertical integration. To streamline design and manufacturing, he said, many of Tetra-1’s components were reused from prior programs, and most were homegrown. “About 80% of what goes into our small spacecraft is built in-house, which allows us to control the cost, schedule and quality of our components. That makes a remarkable difference … because we’re able to solve problems really quickly instead of having to rely on outside vendors.”

Technology also figures prominently, according to Kim, who said Millennium is investing heavily in digital engineering and model-based systems engineering. “Model-based systems engineering and digital engineering allow us to measure twice before we cut once,” he explained. “By doing more design work upfront, we can make the back-end manufacturing smoother, faster and more efficient.”

Secret Ingredient: Teamwork

As important as efficient processes are, what ultimately turned speed into success on Tetra-1 was good communication, according to Roth.

“I think it comes down to really great collaboration between government and industry,” he said. “The engagement between our organizations was frequent. We got to see that satellite being built almost on a daily basis, and that was a key success indicator.”

That, and a shared appreciation for the important mission at hand. “There was a really strong understanding of the threat that we are looking to address with Tetra-1 … and that was another common denominator between government and industry that helped us get this done,” Roth continued.

Echoed Kim, “We have a lot of patriotic people here who believe in our customers’ missions … They understand why it’s so important for us to be nimble and agile and fast—so that we can deliver the capabilities our customers need to stay ahead of advanced threats, which are only becoming more advanced.”