Study calls on U.S. to change how it buys space technology, reduce congestion in low orbits
WASHINGTON — The Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress released a new report May 4 calling on the U.S. government to accelerate the procurement of commercial space technologies and manage growing congestion in low-Earth orbit.
CSPC is a nonpartisan think tank led by former members of Congress Mike Rogers, of Michigan; and Glenn Nye, of Virginia. In a 2019 report the group called out DoD for not opening up opportunities for emerging commercial space companies, and was especially critical of the national security space launch program.
Many of the same points were made in the 2021 report.
“If the Space Force does not address the underlying issue of acquisition reform, America will lose its competitive edge in space,” said the study.
“The commercial space sector has radically reshaped the way countries and companies access space, yet the old model of block-buys, multi-year contracts, and nearly bespoke vehicles remains,” said CSPC.
“It is insufficient to change contracting processes if the outcome is that legacy providers continue to slow the pace and increase the cost of innovation,” the report said.
CSPC pointed at the Space Force’s Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared satellites as an example of how space acquisitions should not be done. “Five satellites to be deployed by 2028, the earliest of which may fly by 2025, at a cost of nearly $9 billion,” said the report. “This by no means leverages next-generation capabilities, mega-constellations, or other cutting-edge technologies.”
The group identified national security space launch (NSSL) as an area where the government could benefit from more competition. The study echoes arguments made by Jeff Bezos’ space venture Blue Origin, which last year competed for a national security space launch contract but lost to United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.
Blue Origin is one of the corporate sponsors of the CSPC study, along with Rocket Lab and Nanoracks.
CSPC suggests DoD should buy “space access-as-a-service” and allow companies to qualify and compete for launches and in-space transportation contracts more frequently than the current NSSL program that selects providers for five-year deals.
“This model is proving successful for NASA’s Launch Service Program and should inform future planning for the Space Force,” said CSPC. The report noted that the National Reconnaissance Office is interested in using a more agile model of launch-as-a-service.
Brett Alexander, vice president of Blue Origin, compared the NSSL program that only picks two providers for five years to a “high walled garden approach with all eggs in one, or now two, baskets.”
“We need faster development of more types of spacecraft and more launch options,” said Alexander. The Space Force should be “competing launches based on individual launches or small blocks, not these five-year, large contracts.”
CSPC also recommends that the United States push for “internationally agreed rules of the road for space, especially in crowded space environments like near-Earth orbit and eventually the moon.”
Growing congestion risks the future of commercial, civil, scientific and national security space activities, the report said.
Lars Hoffman, senior vice president of small satellite launcher Rocket Lab, said crowded LEO orbits are making it more difficult to deploy satellites.
“One of the things that we’ve noticed over the last year is that an increasingly crowded low-Earth orbit is impacting our ability to reach space,” Hoffman said.
“So whereas we used to have multiple hour-long launch windows, we now are seeing that divided up into smaller and smaller segments because the lower orbit regimes are getting more and more crowded,” he added.
Hoffman endorsed proposals made by CSPC and others to require faster de-orbiting of satellites when they’re no longer in use and the removal of spent rockets.
“This is an area that is starting to become almost urgent as we go forward and see thousands of satellites delivered in low Earth orbit,” Hoffman said. “If the U.S. doesn’t take a leadership role on this, then other countries around the world who are growing their access to space are not going to necessarily feel obligated to follow the norms.”