SMC commander impressed by ‘technical maturity’ of newly developed U.S. rockets

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Thompson: 'What I'm seeing right now across the launch industrial base is a lot of goodness.'

WASHINGTON — The development of new rockets that are competing in the National Security Space Launch program is progressing at a rapid pace and all appear to be on track to meet the program schedule, Lt. Gen. John “JT” Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said June 17.

The procurement arm of the U.S. Space Force, the Space and Missile Systems Center is evaluating proposals from four U.S. launch companies — United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman. The companies are competing for two contracts to be awarded this summer to launch DoD and intelligence agency satellites starting in 2022.

For the competition, known as the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 procurement, ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman are developing brand new rockets — Vulcan, New Glenn and OmegA, respectively — that the companies say will be ready for first flight in 2021.

Speaking during a Mitchell Institute webinar, Thompson said he is not directly involved in the source selection for the Phase 2 contracts but he does serve in a key role as the “certification official” who has to ascertain that new launch vehicles have met the requirements to fly national security missions, which include military and spy satellites.

“I track very closely all of the offers in the launch service procurement Phase two contract,” said Thompson. “I track very closely the technical maturity of those programs to make sure that those vehicles are certified. What I’m seeing right now across the launch industrial base is a lot of goodness — particularly in the national security space launch sized vehicles.”

All the vendors involved in Phase 2 “continue to make progress maturing their vehicles and I’m confident that they’re going to get it across the finish line,” he said.

A RAND Corp. study commissioned by the Air Force said SMC should consider supporting more than two launch providers in Phase 2 because there is a risk that there will not be enough certified rockets to launch national security satellites when Phase 2 starts in 2022.

Thompson said he is not concerned about the available supply of rockets given the progress made by all vendors.

The Senate Armed Services Committee in its markup of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act said the Air Force could support companies that don’t win Phase 2 by investing in programs that would help them prepare for Phase 3 five years from now.

“I think that there are some really important things that we can do to help set the playing field appropriately going into Phase 3,” said Thompson. “There is some critical work that we could do in terms of requirements definition and things like that.”

SMC last year began a National Security Launch Architecture study to gain deeper insight into the industry’s capabilities and planned investments.

“We hope to have the architecture study inform us of what those requirements in Phase 3 could look like,” said Thompson. “And then if there’s an opportunity to start developing against some of those requirements earlier in the process, during the execution of Phase 2, and I think we’re very amenable.”