Vector-R Wallops
An engineering test model of the Vector-R rocket at Pad 0B of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia. Credit: Vector

WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee approved three amendments in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 related to the burgeoning small launch industry. The provisions require the Defense Department to lay out a plan for how it could make greater use of commercial spaceports to launch small satellites, and to develop a strategy to integrate commercial capabilities into DoD space operations. The committee also directs DoD to investigate China’s investments in its small satellite and small launch industries.

The small launch amendments sponsored by Strategic Forces Subcommittee Ranking Member Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M) made it into the SASC markup that the committee voted in a closed session May 22 to advance to the Senate floor. The full text of the legislation is expected to be released in early June. SpaceNews obtained a copy of Heinrich’s amendments.

The provisions, if they make into the final version of the NDAA, would address longtime concerns of commercial small launch providers about integrating military launch requirements into their business plans and ensuring launch facilities can support those demands. The legislation also would give a boost to underused U.S. spaceports that are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The bill authorizes a new Defense Department program to modernize infrastructure for launching small and medium payloads. This program would support the Pentagon’s strategy to make military space systems harder for enemies to target by deploying smaller, less expensive satellites using commercial launch vehicles. Several U.S. companies are developing small space vehicles to meet this projected demand.

According to the SASC provision, DoD would propose investments at ranges and spaceports to support its needs. DoD would figure out how to “normalize processes, systems and products across ranges and spaceports to minimize burden on launch providers.” The committee also asks DoD for “transparency, flexibility, and responsiveness for launch scheduling, factoring in proximity to, and quantity of, existing commercial airline flight patterns.”

The bill requires DoD to submit a plan to the congressional defense committees no later than 270 days after the enactment of the NDAA.

Another provision directs DoD to deliver to Congress a plan for acquiring “tactical responsive launch.” DoD would have to explain how its space operations could take advantage of commercial vehicles and facilities. The SASC asks the secretary of defense to brief the plan to the congressional defense committees by March 1, 2020.

The question of how DoD plans to use military and commercial ranges for small launch activities has been a key concern of Heinrich and other lawmakers. New Mexico is home to the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Advanced Systems and Development Directorate, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, the Space Test Program, the White Sands Missile Range, Spaceport America and the Air Force Space Rapid Capabilities Office.

The SASC bill “encourages the use of FAA-licensed spaceports and launch and range complexes for mid-to low inclination orbits or polar high-inclination orbits in support of national security space priorities.” These spaceports offer DoD less costly launch sites and services as an alternative to Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, the committee notes. Launch sites that DoD should consider using include: Spaceport America in New Mexico, Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska, the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, Virginia; and the Oklahoma Air & Spaceport. Thes facilities are “available to help meet the requirements for the national security space program for Air Force Space Command, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, the Missile Defense Agency, and Space Development Agency.”

The Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska is the only commercial polar launch range available in the United States and is an alternative west coast range to Vandenberg for national security missions, the committee adds. The launch site at Wallops Island supports medium and small-class launch. The Oklahoma Air & Spaceport is the only spaceport in the United States to have a civilian FAA-approved space flight corridor in the national airspace system. Spaceport America is a licensed inland launch site located next to the White Sands Missile Range where DoD controls the only restricted airspace in the country besides the White House.

“Significant investments have been made at inland spaceports, which already have the infrastructure in place to accommodate smaller space launches for the Department,” the SASC bill says.

Other items from the SASC markup:

China space industry study: One of Heinrich’s amendments directs the secretary of defense to provide by March 15, 2020, a briefing on the current state of the small satellite and small launch industry in China, including the role of the Chinese government in the growth of these companies. DoD must recommend steps and investments it should take to ensure it has access to domestic small satellite and small launch technologies and capabilities.

Space Sensor Layer: SASC Strategic Forces subcommittee Chairman Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) recommended adding $108 million to the Pentagon’s 2020 for a space sensor layer to track cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons. This would be in addition to the Missile Defense Agency’s $157.4 million request to continue to develop space-based sensors to defend the United States and allies from hypersonic threats.

Space Test Program: SASC supports the Pentagon’s $26.09 million request for the Space Test Program, based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. Heinrich has been an advocate of the STP program and its use of experimental spacecraft from emerging small launch entrants like Rocket Lab and Vox Space. He also has pushed for investments in the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative, an effort to match national security launch needs with non-traditional space companies.

Rocket Systems Launch Program: SASC supports the Pentagon’s $13.19 million request for RSLP, also based at Kirtland Air Force Base. The program converts surplus ballistic missiles like Minuteman and Peacekeeper ICBMs into test launch vehicles.

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...