Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson. Credit: Keith Johnson

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center earlier this month hosted one-on-one meetings with executives from 30 companies from across the space industry. This was the start of a multiyear market study that will influence Air Force (and Space Force) spending on private sector technologies and services over the coming decade.

The market study is titled National Security Launch Architecture (NSLA). “This is a foray into exploring new concepts,” Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), told SpaceNews.

The companies invited to Los Angeles to brief SMC submitted white papers in response to an Oct. 25 request for information, or RFI. They included a mix of established launch providers and startups, satellite operators and emerging suppliers of in-space logistics and transportation services.

The NSLA is not a traditional launch market study but a more comprehensive look at what capabilities commercial players could bring to the military for future space operations.

NSLA will be a two-part study. The first part, to be completed in mid-2020, will look at technologies and services the industry plans to develop between 2025 and 2030. The second part, expected to wrap up in 2022, will focus on capabilities beyond 2030.

Thompson noted that SMC is working to revamp its culture of buying big-ticket hardware from a small cadre of defense contractors and this study will be an opportunity to work with emerging companies.

Instead of the Air Force dictating requirements that the industry has to figure out how to fulfill, SMC wants to first learn about what the private sector is doing that might be relevant to national security.

In charge of the study is Col. Russell Teehan, SMC’s portfolio architect. But the project is also overseen by a high-level steering group that includes officials from the Pentagon, U.S. Space Command and the National Reconnaissance Office.

Launch capabilities are a focus but still just one piece of the broader puzzle that is the future space architecture, Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of SMC’s launch enterprise, told SpaceNews.

With bids already in from United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman for the two big National Security Space Launch Contracts the Air Force intends to award in 2020, the market study is going to inform the Defense Department’s strategy for a follow-on procurement projected to get underway in 2024, said Bongiovi. He insisted that the Air Force “needs to understand the business demands across commercial and civil space, and how much U.S. launch providers can do.”

Underlying the NSLA is the U.S. military’s shift in space posture as adversaries develop advanced anti-satellite weapons. That will put pressure on the acquisition organizations to be more responsive to changing needs.

The RFI suggests that the Air Force wants to learn, for example, how emerging in-space logistics services could support national security. Today’s launch providers essentially offer point-to-point delivery: satellites are deployed into operational orbits or delivered to special transfer orbits and use their built-in thrusters to reach their final destinations. A future architecture might be more like a hub-and-spoke transportation system with central drop-off points patrolled by space tugs ready to pick up satellites and move them to different orbits and inclinations.

A space ecosystem with reliable services available all the way to cislunar space — with on-orbit servicing, refueling and repair — would open new possibilities and different approaches for U.S. space forces. The NSLA study will consider how the availability of an in-space transportation system would change military requirements across the board, from launch to satellites and ground infrastructure.

If all this innovation materializes, it will create opportunities and challenges for the Air Force and the future Space Force. It’s widely recognized that to take advantage of commercial technologies, the military has to accelerate its acquisition process. But there also needs to be a consensus on the future architecture before the military can define its requirements and request funding.

These are central questions that will be debated at length in the NSLA study, Thompson said. He predicts that the cost of launch will go down and that will free up money to pay for other capabilities such as in-space logistics and other on-orbit services. “If that trend continues and launch costs drop, and size, weight [and] power reductions on spacecraft come to pass, we will save considerable funding to reapply money into other parts of the enterprise.”

Sandra Erwin

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.

This column ran in the Dec. 23, 2019 issue.

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...