Jim Bridenstine is an independent consultant, former NASA Administrator, and former U.S. Congressman. He serves on the Firefly Aerospace Board of Advisors.
Congratulations to the space professionals at the U.S. Space Force, Firefly Aerospace, and Millennium Space for successfully demonstrating Tactically Responsive Space (TacRS). This key competency is not only critical for rapid space domain awareness and deterrence; it is the next step in utilizing commercial capability to augment national security space in a time of need – anytime, anywhere. Just as the DoD’s Transportation Command can call on commercial aircraft in the event of an emergency (Civil Reserve Air Fleet – CRAF), now U.S. Space Command can call on commercial launch and on-orbit operations in the event of an emergency (Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve – CASR). Like other CASR initiatives, TacRS is necessary for national security, cost-effectiveness, and American competitiveness.
First, as on-orbit threats are changing apace and proliferating, TacRS is an increasingly critical element of national security in space. The United States cannot accept being surprised by ambiguous and potentially hostile objects operating in space. Nor can the United States afford a miscalculation that results in a disastrous, inadvertent escalation. To prevent these potential outcomes, TacRS provides a contingency response to characterize questionable objects and potential threats, reducing the risk of surprise. With better space domain awareness on operationally relevant timelines, commanders have more decision time, which reduces the chance of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation. And, when necessary, the end-to-end capabilities of TacRS (launch vehicle, space vehicle, sensors, ground systems, on-orbit operations) can provide additional urgent on-orbit capability in a time of need.
Second, TacRS concurrently increases capability and saves money by leveraging the investment, innovation, and operational strength of America’s great entrepreneurs. In written testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Whiting articulated this idea: “Partnering with commercial entities enables [U.S. Space Command] to adapt faster, innovate more reliably, integrate cutting-edge technology on an accelerated timeline, bolster space architecture resilience, develop a better understanding of the space domain, expedite decision making, and devise economical solutions to strategic problems.”
This is the promise of CASR, and TacRS is a perfect early example. Firefly Aerospace developed the Alpha launch vehicle to be ready within 24 hours regardless of payload or customer. In so doing, SSC Space Safari does not have to bear the total cost of capital expenditures; and commercial, civil, and DoD satellite customers will all benefit from the “anytime, anywhere” launch capability. In fact, when TacRS is operationalized, the Space Force will be able to buy a single launch vehicle to secure its position as “next” in the launch manifest. When a commercial satellite company buys a launch, it will receive the benefit of the Space Force’s “ready” vehicle and pay for the “ready” replacement. U.S. Space Command will always have a ready vehicle, and commercial companies will also be able to launch on short notice. National security is strengthened at minimal cost by the pipeline of commercial and civil customers.
Finally, TacRS improves American competitiveness. The ability to launch small payloads to specific orbits at a moment’s notice (anytime, anywhere) at low cost is a unique and desirable capability not available in any other country. It ensures that the American space industry can rapidly iterate and test new satellites, payloads, and other technology (AI, edge processing, etc.) at the speed of innovation. American entrepreneurs will continue to lead the world in space technology as a result of the Space Force’s commitment to building commercial and military partnerships.
The successful TacRS mission was a sight to behold, and the entire team deserves praise. The next mission will once again reinforce that national security space can and must be enhanced by commercial capability. The partnership strengthens America, saves money, and improves American competitiveness.