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Today’s briefing

• Lawmakers question cost of national security space launch
• U.S. exporters of geospatial data to get help from Ex-Im Bank

• LeoLabs wins $15 million Defense Production Act contract

The House Appropriations defense subcommittee (HAC-D) cut $109.9 million from the Space Force’s $1.043 billion request for the procurement of three national security space launches in fiscal year 2021.

In its markup of the bill, the HAC-D said it cut the request due to “unjustified increases.” The full committee will mark up the defense spending bill on Tuesday.

Appropriators in a report accompanying the bill point out what industry and government officials have been saying for years: that the development of commercial launch systems has substantially reduced the cost of launching satellites to orbit. The price of launches under the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program, meanwhile, do not appear to be coming down. The 2020 budget funded four launches for $1.2 billion. The 2019 budget funded $1.7 billion for five NSSL launches.

  • The HAC-D said it is “concerned with the cost of the NSSL procurements, which account for more than 40 percent of the Space Force procurement budget.”
  • The committee is “aware that the cost of launch services has dropped significantly in recent years as a result of increased competition from new entrants, yet the requested budget does not follow this downward trend, and remains stubbornly high, raising questions about the government’s cost to manage and oversee the program.”

There are reasons why NSSL missions cost more than commercial launches. Payloads are complex and some missions require vehicle customization. There are rigorous “mission assurance” engineering reviews by the Space and Missile Systems Center and Aerospace Corp., government overhead and other management costs.

The Air Force is going to have to break that down for the HAC-D which asked for a detailed explanation of why the service is asking for a billion dollars for three NSSL launches.

“The Committee believes commercial practices must remain the cornerstone of the launch program and should only incorporate mission assurance practices that improve it,” the report says.

If this language makes the final defense appropriations bill, the Space Force will have to make a stronger case for its future NSSL budget requests.

  • The HAC-D “believes the level of detail provided in the budget justification materials for the NSSL program is lacking and needs an overhaul to provide greater consistency, clarity, and finer granularity to justify the costs of the program.”
  • The bill directs the secretary of the Air Force to provide congressional defense committees “a plan to revamp the budget structure and improve the quality of justification materials in future budget submissions.”

Separately in the report, the HAC-D criticized the lack of a Senate-confirmed civilian leader to oversee Space Force acquisitions.


Michael Kratsios will serve as acting undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. Mark Lewis was named acting deputy.

DoD said the agreement is to “ensure the continued viability of space surveillance capability through the operation and maintenance of a worldwide highly capable phased-array radar network.”

The YAM-3 satellite — scheduled to fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission — will carry an experiment for DARPA’s Blackjack program.

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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...