U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. John "JT" Thompson, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, talks to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk at the Air Force Space Pitch Day event in San Francisco. Credit: U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force just held its inaugural “Space Pitch Day” in which small businesses were given a chance to win contracts on the spot. No red tape. Officials said this will become an annual thing.

Live pitch events are one of several avenues the Air Force is pursuing to attract U.S.-owned startups and commercial businesses that are breaking new ground in space technology. A desire to reach out to innovators also has driven efforts like the Space Enterprise Consortium and a number of initiatives to help fund space tech incubators.

Amid a rapid growth in commercial space ventures, it dawned on the Air Force that many of its programs are stuck in the past and not benefiting from the spurt in innovation.

“We need to look beyond the big traditional primes to tap into true innovation,” Maj. Gen. Nina Armagno, director of space programs at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said last month at the International Astronautical Congress.

“My boss Dr. Roper has been insistent that our future depends on a healthy industry and especially for space, that industry has to grow,” she said.

Will Roper is the Air Force’s top acquisition executive and one of the staunchest advocates for greater outreach to commercial space, particularly small businesses.

Engagements like Pitch Day are helping to build some credibility with small business, Armagno said, while also acknowledging that the government could do more to change its ways. “We must do things differently,” she said.

One sector of the commercial space industry where the Air Force is trying to become a better customer is small launch. Armagno said there is a recognized need for the U.S. military to work with emerging small launch providers.

Having access to a broad base of launch providers that can fly from multiple locations is a central component of a resilient space architecture, noted Armagno.

Roper told SpaceNews during a recent interview that he has been closely watching the small launch industry to understand the dynamics of the sector. Some small providers are counting on government contracts for their survival and the Air Force has been slow to figure out a business model to work with these companies, Roper acknowledged.

“I am pushing the Air Force to engage with small launch companies,” said Roper. He sees this industry as a potential disrupter that could make it possible for the United States to deploy entire constellations on demand and make it costly for enemies to try to take them down.

But he worries that some companies with promising technologies and novel launch approaches won’t make it because there is not enough work to go around.

“I talked to companies about what makes the business case close for them,” said Roper. He has asked the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center to come up with a plan. “We need to be able to partner with them on launch and test infrastructure. And we need to commit to a stable number of launches per year so they’ll get steady work from the Air Force even during commercial downtimes.” These are things the government can do, said Roper.

Many in the commercial space industry argue that the sector’s growth is being stymied by burdensome government regulations. On issues like space launch licensing, commercial companies large and small wonder why it’s taking so long for the government to update existing regulations that were written decades ago.

Wayne Monteith, the Federal Aviation Administration’s official who oversees commercial space, said the agency is working to revise launch and re-entry licensing rules to help the industry become more competitive. But it’s a tough balancing act, he said.

After spending 30 years in government, “what I see in the commercial world is that the risk calculus is completely different,” Monteith said at the International Astronautical Congress. “Whether they answer to private investors or shareholders, it’s different than answering to taxpayers,” Monteith said.

Commercial space companies are pushing technology and are in a constant race against time, he said. Like the Air Force, the FAA wants to be supportive, Monteith added. “To have collaboration is not always natural for a government agency. We want to be able to handle those innovative ideas from industry, as long as we continue to protect the public.”

“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Nov. 11, 2019 issue.

Sandra Erwin

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

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...