Tag Archives: Air Force

Air Force confirms more Rocket Lab launches

Capitalism in space:: With the successful launch of a DARPA satellite by Rocket Lab last week, the Air Force yesterday confirmed the purchase of several more launches on the company’s Electron Rocket.

Three satellites will be launched to low Earth orbit later this month from Mahia, New Zealand, using Rocket Lab USA’s Electron rocket.

…The upcoming Rocket Lab launch is one of five planned in 2019. … Five small launches will send 21 experimental satellites to space by the end of December, said Lt. Col. Andrew Anderson, chief of the DoD Space Test Program Branch.

One of the five will be by Vox Space later this year. The company will use Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket that is air launched from a Boeing 747 mothership.

Anderson said there is possibly another vendor in the mix but only Rocket Lab and Vox Space so far can be identified.

I suspect that the unnamed vendor is Vector, but the Air Force is likely not going commit to this until Vector gets farther along in its test program.

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Air Force’s launch contracting plans under scrutiny

It appears the Air Force wants to decide now which two rocket companies it will use for its launch needs in the 2022 to 2026 time period, and this desire is raising hackles among those companies.

[T]he Air Force will choose only two companies to meet its launch needs from 2022 to 2026, with one provider winning 60 percent of the contracts and the other taking 40 percent. There is no provision to on-ramp other companies during the time frame.

This sets up a rather frantic competition between the incumbents, ULA and SpaceX, and newcomers Blue Origin (with its New Glenn booster) and Northrop Grumman (with its Omega rocket). Moreover, the timing appears to prejudice the competition in favor of the incumbents, which already have existing launch systems the government can assess.

Something is really fishy here. Why does the Air Force need to limit its services to only two companies? And why do they have to make this decision now, three to seven years before the launches will occur? Common sense says you instead issue specific contract bids, for each launch, as they are needed, thus allowing as many companies as possible to compete for the business.

In fact, this policy seems to directly contradict the Air Force’s stated goal, repeated many times in the past few years, to widen competition in the launch industry, both to lower cost and to give the military strategic redundancy in its needed launch services.

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Air Force awards ULA and SpaceX three launch contracts each

Capitalism in space: The Air Force this week released more details about the new launch contracts for both ULA and SpaceX worth just under three quarters of a billion dollars.

The contracts announced in February by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center were split between ULA and SpaceX, rivals in the U.S. launch industry. ULA won deals for up to three launches worth $441.76 million, and the Air Force awarded SpaceX contracts worth $297 million, also for three missions.

I had reported this back in February when it was first announced, but it was not then revealed that one of the SpaceX launches would be with the Falcon Heavy, the second such Air Force launch planned. That the Air Force awarded this contract prior to its first launch, now scheduled for no earlier than June 2019, is somewhat surprising. I would have expected them to wait to first see if that launch, only the second Falcon Heavy launch, was successful.

The article also notes a minor change by the Air Force in its launch program.

The Air Force has also given a new name to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, a multibillion initiative begun in the 1990s to fund and oversee the development and operations of the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets now owned by ULA.

The Space and Missile Systems Center announced March 1 that the EELV program’s new name is the National Security Space Launch program, in response to language in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

They really needed to eliminate “Expendable” from the name, since the first stage of SpaceX’s rockets are not expendable, and it is expected that future rockets will be reusable as well. Moreover, EELV was created in the 1990s to create a launch monopoly for Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which then merged to create ULA. That monopoly no longer exists, and the military is now aiming to widen the competition, opening it up to more companies.

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Air Force awards launch contracts (3 each) to ULA and SpaceX

Capitalism in space: The Air Force yesterday announced the awarding of launch contracts to both SpaceX and ULA, giving each company three launches.

ULA will receive $441.76 million under a fixed-price contract to launch SBIRS GEO-5, SBIRS GEO-6 and Silent Barker, a classified space situational awareness mission.

SpaceX will receive $297 million to launch AFSPC-44, NROL-85, and NROL-87.

Note the difference in price. While the specific missions might have requirements that make the ULA launches more expensive, I suspect that most of the difference has to do with SpaceX’s ability to simply do it cheaper. The Air Force however did not give all the contracts to SpaceX because it has strategic reasons to have two independent launch companies. It also faces political pressure to support both companies, regardless of cost, as illustrated by recent stories about the political gamesmanship between SpaceX and ULA.

This story does illustrate however how the competition from SpaceX has forced ULA to lower its prices. For these three launches they are charging an average of about $147 million. Before SpaceX’s competition, their price per launch generally averaged more than $225 million. Isn’t competition wonderful?

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Trump signs directive outlining Space Force proposal

President Trump yesterday signed a directive that roughly outlines the creation of a Space Force office operating within the Air Force.

This directive lays out the groundwork that Congress and Air Force official must still work out in detail. The essence however is that this new office will initially be small, will takeover all military space operations, and will be a separate division within the Air Force, for now.

[The directive] does not kill the idea of a separate department but defers it to a later time, after the Space Force has a chance to mature as a service. “What we don’t want to do is do it all at once,” the senior administration official said. If the White House had pressed for a separate department, he said, “we would spend a lot of time dealing with bureaucracy and structure and not focusing on warfighting. We decided to leverage the capabilities and the expertise that is already resident in the Air Force.”

An Air Force spokesman said that if the draft legislative proposal is enacted, “it will be our responsibility to deter and defeat threats in space through the U.S. Space Force, which will organize, train, and equip military space forces.”

But while the Air Force has owned the space mission and has the technical expertise, it still faces enormous political and logistical challenges organizing a new branch that has to be independent and will have to be staffed with members from other services who must be qualified for space-related work.

“Personnel issues are critical,” the senior administration official said. “People in the space business tend to be very highly trained and specialized.” Key personnel issues are being addressed in the legislative proposal, which will suggest a process to transfer service members from other branches to the Space Force. “We’ll focus on the headquarters functions to begin with,” he said. So the Space Force initially would be a few dozen people and then would grow over time. [emphasis mine]

The reason they are emphasizing the small size initially is that they got a lot of opposition to the idea of creating a new and large bureaucracy, something the Air Force and Trump initially pushed. Whether its stays small once Congress joins in the negotiations remains doubtful, however, consider that at least one politician is already lobbying to have a new Space Force headquarters established in Florida.

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SpaceX protests NASA launch contract to ULA

Turf war! SpaceX has filed a protest against a NASA launch contract award to ULA for almost $150 million for the Lucy asteroid mission in 2023.

In a statement, SpaceX, the California company founded by Elon Musk, said it was the first time it had challenged a NASA contract.

“SpaceX offered a solution with extraordinarily high confidence of mission success at a price dramatically lower than the award amount,” the company said in a statement to The Washington Post. “So we believe the decision to pay vastly more to Boeing and Lockheed for the same mission was therefore not in the best interest of the agency or the American taxpayers.”

This protest might explain the politics of two other stories recently:

In the first case two California politicians are using their clout to pressure the Air Force for the benefit of SpaceX. In the second the Air Force inspector general office is using its clout to pressure the Air Force to hurt SpaceX.

All these stories illustrate the corrupt crony capitalism that now permeates any work our federal government does. In order to get government business, you have to wield political power, which means you need to kowtow to politicians and bureaucrats. Very ugly, and very poisonous.

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Military inspector general to review SpaceX’s launch certification

The swamp attacks! The inspector general for the Defense Department has begun a review of the process the Air Force used to certify SpaceX as a qualified military launch provider.

“Our objective is to determine whether the U.S. Air Force complied with the Launch Services New Entrant Certification Guide when certifying the launch system design for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles,” the inspector general said in a memo to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson sent on Monday.

The only reason I can see for this investigation is that the launch companies that have development contracts with the military — ULA, Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin — are applying pressure to get SpaceX eliminated as a competitor. And since there are many in the government aerospace bureaucracy who are in bed with these companies and are also hostile to SpaceX, that pressure has succeeded in getting this investigation started.

SpaceX meanwhile has successfully launched one military payload, and has two more military launches scheduled for 2019. Its prices are so low that these other companies cannot presently compete, not without political help. Worse, it appears these other companies, and the Air Force, do not appear interested in reducing the cost of their next generation rockets to become more competitive. Instead, they apparently have decided to turn the screws on SpaceX and get it eliminated as a competitor.

Meanwhile, SpaceX might be doing its own political push back, behind the scenes. At least, why else did two California lawmakers recently demand a review of the Air Force’s rocket development contracts to all of SpaceX’s competitors, but not SpaceX?

All of this has absolutely nothing to do with picking the best and cheapest launch companies to save the taxpayer money. Instead, the entire way our government operates today is completely uninterested in the needs of the nation. The focus of lawmakers and government officials is to play political games in an effort to take out their opponents. And in this battle the country be damned.

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Trump administration moves forward with reorganization of space bureaucracy

The Trump administration is moving ahead with its planned reorganization of the military’s entire space bureaucracy under the rubric of the Space Force.

The Pentagon is moving forward with plans to create a Space Force as a new military branch. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the Space Force will be small in size and its advantage will come in the form of cutting-edge technology.

Shanahan also has concluded that the existing DoD bureaucracies are not equipped to deliver next-generation space technologies quickly enough. He has directed the establishment of a Space Development Agency that would report directly to Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin. Many details are still being worked out about the SDA, but Shanahan said in a memo that he wants it set up by March 29.

Because much of the modern press does such a bad job, working from a general ignorance, I must repeat again that the goal here is not to make a space army, with laser guns and uniforms, but to centralize the various military space departments, scattered across several divisions, into one office that has some clout because it reports directly to the White House. Right now these scattered offices report to different military agencies with different and competing agendas. The result has been a poorly coordinated space policy that has been expensive and also unable to accomplish much in recent years.

Whether this reorganization will streamline things as it is intended remains an open question. The bureaucratic culture in Washington is certainly never interested in streamlining. The usual result of such efforts is a larger bureaucracy that spends even more. We shall see.

This action is also related to another story today: Lawmakers: Air Force launch procurement strategy undermines SpaceX

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) are calling for an independent review of the Air Force’s space launch procurement strategy. They contend that the Air Force, in an effort to broaden the launch playing field, is putting SpaceX at a competitive disadvantage.

In a Feb. 4 letter addressed to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Feinstein and Calvert — both with strong ties to the space industry — argue that the path the Air Force has chosen to select future launch providers creates an unfair playing field. Although SpaceX is not mentioned in the letter by name, it is clear from the lawmakers’ language that they believe the company is getting a raw deal because, unlike its major competitors, it did not receive Air Force funding to modify its commercial rockets so they meet national security mission requirements.

This second story actually illustrates the bureaucratic concerns that the Trump administration is trying to address in the first story. It appears to the elected officials that the military’s award of this contract was not necessarily in the best interests of the military, but instead was designed to help some companies at the expense of others.

The $2.3 billion in funding went to ULA, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman to develop their next generation rockets. Why SpaceX, considered a favorite, did not receive any funding remains unclear, though SpaceX officials have indicated that in the past they have refused government development money (for building Falcon Heavy) because of the requirements attached. It could be that SpaceX did the same here, but it is also possible that the military bureaucracy played favorites.

It is this question that the elected officials want clarified.

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Blue Origin reveals redesigned New Glenn rocket

Capitalism in space: In a video animation Blue Origin last week revealed a new redesigned version of its orbital New Glenn rocket.

There are a few notable differences between the rocket depicted in the new video and the New Glenn we saw in a similar 2017 animation. For example, the older version featured a payload fairing — the protective nose cone that surrounds spacecraft during launch — that was bullet-shaped and 18 feet (5.4 meters) wide. The current incarnation boasts a 23-foot-wide (7 m) fairing with a traditional snub-nosed look. (A previously envisioned three-stage New Glenn featured this bigger fairing, but this booster variant is no longer part of Blue Origin’s plans.)

And the first stage’s six landing legs will apparently now deploy a bit differently — by unfolding outward from the bottom, much as Falcon 9 legs do, rather than sort of sliding downward.

These changes are almost certainly are the result of the company’s Air Force contract that gave it $500 million in development money in exchange for having a say in how the rocket is built.

For example, I am not surprised that New Glenn now more closely resembles the Falcon 9. The modern American military is not known for its daring or innovation. It had to be sued to finally agree to award contracts to SpaceX. Now that the Falcon 9 is well proven, however, the military bean-counters are probably demanding that New Glenn copy it, rather than introduce innovations of its own.

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Air Force accepts first new Boeing tanker despite problems

The Air Force has accepted delivery of Boeing’s first new tanker airplane, despite problems that leaves the plane “years away from reaching their full operational potential.”

The U.S. Air Force has accepted the first Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tanker, an important milestone for the troubled program. However, the initial batch of aircraft will still have serious problems with their remote vision and refueling boom systems, meaning that the planes remain years away from reaching their full operational potential.

Foreign Policy was the first to report on the agreement between the Air Force and Boeing to proceed with the deliveries of the aircraft, citing anonymous sources, on Jan. 10, 2019. Defense News then reported that the Chicago-headquartered planemaker had agreed to fix the remaining deficiencies and that the Air Force’s top leadership reserved the right to withhold full payment for the planes – up to $1.5 billion in total if the service docks the company for each of the 52 aircraft in the first batch of planes – until it sees real progress.

…The acceptance and up-coming deliveries are a big deal for the KC-46A program, which has been mired in delays and controversy since Boeing won the Air Force’s KC-X competition in 2011. That decision itself followed nearly a decade of earlier, scandal-ridden Air Force attempts to procure a new tanker aircraft. Notably, in 2004, Darleen Druyun, a Boeing executive who had previously been the Air Force’s top procurement official, went to federal prison after receiving a conviction on corruption charges relating to an earlier tanker program.

The Air Force was supposed to have received a fleet of 18 KC-46As, the first tranche in the total initial buy of 52 aircraft, by the end of 2017 and reach an initial operational capability with the type shortly thereafter. Between 2011 and 2017, continuing technical difficulties…repeatedly pushed this schedule back. This continued into 2018, leading to an unusually public spat between the two parties over the program’s progress. Boeing’s contract is firm, fixed-price, and that company has already had to pay more than $3 billion of its own money to cover cost overruns. [emphasis mine]

Why is it that it seems to me that every single government program today is always “troubled” and “mired in delays and controversary?” Or maybe the question answers itself. These are government programs after all.

The one saving grace of this story is that the Air Force issued a fixed price contract here, so that the cost overruns fall on Boeing’s head, not the taxpayer (though Air Force errors in issuing the contract might negate this advantage). The delays however are shameful. It should not be so hard to build a tanker plane.

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Trump administration reorganizes military space into single command

The Trump administration yesterday announced that it is doing what many in the military space sector have been proposing for several years. reorganizing all military space departments into a single command.

This is not a space force, but a realignment of the military bureaucracy in an effort to make space operations more focused and efficient. Whether it will actually do that I have my doubts. My impression from the news reports is that the military is using this as an opportunity to create a new upper management layer, thus increasing the size of bureaucracy.

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New cost figures for Space Force

A budget analysis by a Washington think tank has proposed a new range of cost figures for a Defense Department unit devoted to space operations.

Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, unveiled a highly anticipated report on Monday, detailing cost estimates for standing up a Space Force as a separate military branch. Harrison made headlines in September when he criticized Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s estimate — $13 billion over five years to establish a new service and a space command — as overinflated.

Harrison estimated it would cost the Pentagon an additional $1.5 billion to $2.7 billion over five years to stand up a new service, based on the assumption that more than 96 percent of the cost would be covered from existing budget accounts within DoD. Harrison’s numbers, however, are hard to compare directly with the Air Force secretary’s because they do not include costly items that Wilson put into her proposal, such as a Space Command and additional programs and people she argued would be needed to fight rising space rivals China and Russia.

Harrison laid out cost numbers for three options — a Space Corps, a Space Force Lite and a Space Force Heavy. The total annual budget of the new service would range from $11.3 billion to $21.5 billion under the three options. None includes the National Reconnaissance Office whose size and budget are classified.

These options are a much more realistic analysis of the costs for a military reorganization of its space operations. For example, most of the money for these options is already being spent, with the cheapest option including $11 billion of its $11.3 billion cost figure from present allocations.

I however now ask: Why are we spending $11 billion for offices in the Pentagon, with staffing exceeding 27,000? From what I can gather, these budget numbers do not appear to include the cost for any actual military satellite launches. It seems to me this should be doable with far fewer people, especially if the Pentagon is hiring private companies to build the satellites themselves.

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Defense offers much lower $5 billion Space Force cost

The deputy defense secretary yesterday said that the cost for creating a Space Force should be around $5 billion, not $13 billion as proposed by the Air Force.

The cost to create President Trump’s Space Force could be lower than $5 billion and certainly will be in the single-digit billions, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said at a briefing Thursday, pushing back against Air Force estimates that put the price tag at $13 billion or more.

Shanahan, the lead Pentagon official working on the Space Force, expressed confidence the project would come to fruition — even though Democrats taking over the House have opposed it and the White House has broadly ordered the Pentagon to cut costs.

It appears that he is proposing that the military avoid the creation of a full-fledged new branch of the military and simply reorganize its space bureaucracy into a single office. This would not require Congressional approval, and is also what the military has been considering for the last few years.

Five billion however for an office still seems an ungodly amount of money to me. But then, this is how corrupt Washington functions.

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First ULA Vulcan launch delayed a year to 2021

The first ULA Vulcan launch has been delayed a year to 2021.

In an interview [at a recent conference, John Elbon, chief operating officer of ULA,] said the shift in the first launch to April 2021 is linked to the requirements of the LSA award from the Air Force. “As the procurement schedule was laid out, the Air Force schedule changed, and we synced up with that,” he said, adding that the company was moving ahead with more aggressive internal schedules for Vulcan’s development.

“While ULA was on schedule from a technical standpoint to meet 2020 target, once we reviewed the Air Force’s timeline in the LSA proposals & incorporated [additional] requirements into our plan, we aligned #VulcanCentaur launch dates to meet the Air Force schedule,” the company tweeted.

The LSA awards were Air Force subsidies ranging from $500 to $1 billion given to ULA, Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin last week to support development of their new rockets. And just as Blue Origin was forced to immediately delay its first New Glenn launch after obtaining this award, so has ULA.

In other words, gaining big development money from the Air Force forced both companies to delay their launch to meet the Air Force’s demands, something that SpaceX apparently decided not to do.

We shall see in the coming years which approach works best for making the most money. I favor SpaceX.

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Atlas 5 launches Air Force military satellite

ULA successfully launched an Air Force military satellite early today using its Atlas 5 rocket.

You can watch the launch at the link.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

28 China
17 SpaceX
8 Russia
8 ULA
6 Europe (Arianespace)

China leads the U.S. in the national rankings 28 to 26. Note that Russia has now been tied by ULA in the number of successful launches this year, and has a chance of topping Russia before by year’s end, a possibility that would have been impossible only a few years ago. The Russian launch count has crashed in the past four years. Nor is Russia alone in this. ULA’s numbers have also slumped slightly. Prior to last year, ULA routinely had had a dozen launch per year. It only had 8 launches last year, and it does not look like it will a dozen again in 2018.

This slump is not because of an overall slump in launches. It is because SpaceX has grabbed the commercial market with its less expensive rockets.

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Air Force awards contracts to ULA, Northrop Grumman, Blue Origin

The competition heats up: The Air Force today announced contract awards to ULA, Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin to help further the development of their new rockets.

The award to Blue Origin will be for development of the New Glenn Launch System. The award to Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems is for development of the OmegA Launch System. The award to United Launch Alliance will be for development of the Vulcan Centaur Launch System.

The Launch Service Agreements will facilitate the development of three domestic launch system prototypes and enable the future competitive selection of two National Security Space launch service providers for future procurements, planned for no earlier than fiscal year 2020.

The press release makes no mention of the amount of money being granted to these companies. Personally, I’d rather the government gave nothing until it actually bought real launch services from these companies, but it can only help the Air Force to have four different launch companies (when you include SpaceX) to draw upon. And the competition will force all four to reduce their costs and be creative.

Update: One of my readers in the comments below provided this link outlining the money granted for each contract, with ULA getting just under $1 billion, Northrop Grumman getting just under $800 million, and Blue Origin getting $500 million. This is not chicken-feed, and is in essence a subsidy for all three companies. The large amounts will act to discourage cost-savings, and in my opinion is a mistake. Whenever government bodies provide these kinds of subsidies prior to the deliver of services, the cost for the services inevitably is higher.

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Competing proposals for military space operations

Turf war! Even as Trump is pushing for a new Space Force, the military bureaucracy is proposing competing proposals for rearranging its space bureaucracy.

Some of the details are a bit in the weeds but the following lays out some of the basics

Griffin and Wilson take very different approaches.

In her memo, Wilson suggests the Space Development Agency should be organized under the existing Space Rapid Capabilities Office and that it should be geographically and organizationally connected to U.S. Space Command. She recommends using “existing structures designed and chartered to acquire capabilities rapidly, rather than establishing new structures.”

Griffin is proposing a new D.C.-based agency with a staff of 112 government personnel that would report to him initially, but eventually would shift to the control of a new assistant secretary of defense for space, an office that would first have to be approved by Congress.

In Wilson’s plan, the Space Development Agency and other acquisition organizations would transition to the new Department of the Space Force. She pointedly pushes back on the idea of having an assistant secretary of defense for space or a Space Development Agency that reports to that office. She argues that such a setup would create additional bureaucracy that would be removed from the operators who use and maintain the equipment.

Griffin, a former NASA administrator, seems more focused in his proposal in transitioning the military towards using private commercial assets rather than building its own, but his apparent love for building his own empire might work against that stated goal.

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Air Force estimates Space Force cost at $13 billion for first 5 years

Pork! Air Force has now released its first estimate for establishing a Space Force, with an estimated cost of $13 billion for first five years.

A copy of the Air Force memo was obtained Monday by The Associated Press. The memo says the first-year cost of a Space Force would be $3.3 billion, and the cost over five years would be an estimated $12.9 billion.

As I have said, this is nothing more than pork. At this stage all that needs to happen is a reorganization that would put all space activities in a single office in the Air Force. This is also what the Air Force has wanted to do. Creating a whole new military branch at this time is overkill, and will merely result in too much bureaucracy, for only one reason, to spend money.

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The shift to smallsats by the U.S. military

Link here. The story focuses on the first planned constellation of smallsats, hopefully set for launch by 2021.

[DARPA] has mounted a program called Blackjack, which aims to loft a network of 20 prototype spy satellites to low Earth orbit (LEO) in 2021. These craft will be incredibly cheap compared to the current crop: The goal is get each satellite built and launched for about $6 million, said Thomas, the Blackjack program manager.

Blackjack aims to meet this ambitious cost target by leveraging developments in the private space sector. Several companies plan to establish huge constellations in LEO in the next few years, to deliver cost-effective internet service to people around the globe. SpaceX’s Starlink network, for example, will feature thousands of individual satellites.

Blackjack will integrate reconnaissance and communications payloads into standard commercial satellite bodies (known as buses) and take advantage of the high launch rate required to loft the mega-constellations, Thomas said. “The Blackjack approach assumes that we’re not going to be an anchor tenant. We’re not going to be driving these companies,” he said during the FISO presentation. “But we want to take advantage of that production line of spacecraft, the buses especially, that they’re going to be building. We want to take advantage of that launch and take advantage of all of those pieces.”

There’s a lot more at the link. If this first constellation works out, they will upgrade it to a constellation of 90 satellites. And it will based on buying the bulk of its product from the private sector instead of having the military build it. This will provide a wealth of business for smallsat manufacturers as well as smallsat rocket companies.

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Air Force to accelerate hypersonic weapon development?

By signing two different contracts worth $1.4 billion in the past four months with Lockheed Martin, the Air Force is claiming that it is accelerating the development of hypersonic weapons in order to keep up with similar development by the Chinese and the Russians.

The first contract, announced in April, awards $928 million to develop something called the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW). And last week, the Air Force disclosed another deal, worth up to $480 million, to begin designing the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW).

“We are going to go fast and leverage the best technology available to get hypersonic capability to the war fighter as soon as possible,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in a statement last week.

Hypersonic vehicles travel at least five times faster than the speed of sound (Mach 5; Mach 1 at sea level is 762 mph, or 1,226 km/h). And they’re designed to be maneuverable, which differentiates them from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and other fast-flying conventional weapons systems that follow predictable paths. “We don’t currently have effective defenses against hypersonic weapons because of the way they fly; i.e., they’re maneuverable and fly at an altitude our current defense systems are not designed to operate at,” Richard Speier, adjunct staff at the nonprofit RAND Corp., told CNBC in March. “Our whole defensive system is based on the assumption that you’re gonna intercept a ballistic object.”

I am a bit skeptical here. The military has been playing around with hypersonic development now for the last fifteen years, spending a lot of money flying a handful of test flights of three different design concept prototypes. Nothing is even close to an actual operational vehicle. These new contracts might produce something, but I fear that they are also pork-laden, and will be too expensive and take far too long, producing nothing more than test prototypes once again.

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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy wins Air Force launch contract

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has won a $130 million Air Force contract to use its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch a military satellite.

The Falcon Heavy beat out a bid from United Launch Alliance for the mission labeled Air Force Space Command-52, or AFSPC-52, which is targeting liftoff from KSC’s pad 39A in 2020.

United Launch Alliance’s most powerful launcher, the Delta IV Heavy, has a price tag approaching $400 million.

The price comparison bears repeating: ULA: $400 million, SpaceX: $130. It is not surprising that SpaceX got the contract, though it does illustrate the difference between the Air Force’s space effort and NASA’s. The Air Force is making a concrete and real effort to lower its launch costs, using competition as a tool to do so. NASA, which faces the same kind of price comparison when comparing SLS to SpaceX, continues however to ignore that price difference and insist its future interplanetary manned programs must go with SLS, and SLS only.

In this context, I think this graph from Capitalism in Space is worth another look:

SLS vs commercial space

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Air Force forces delay in next Falcon Heavy launch

Because the Air Force wishes to do more testing and review of both its payload and the rocket, the second launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has been delayed several months.

The Falcon Heavy mission for the Air Force will be its first for a paying customer. STP-2 has a number of objectives, including demonstrating the new rocket’s capabilities and launching several satellites.

The launch had been set for June.

That the Air Force is on board Falcon Heavy now indicates that it wants to get this rocket certified for military launches as quickly as possible, thus giving it another heavy lift launch option besides the much more expensive Delta Heavy of ULA. This strategy is good for the Air Force, good for the taxpayer, and good for the launch industry. It will lower launch costs while encouraging competition.

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Air Force moves to reorganize its space operations

Turf war! Claiming it is working to speed up acquisitions and the design-to-launch timeframe of future space missions, the Air Force today announced that it is reorganizing its space operations.

After a four-month review, SMC Commander Lt. Gen. J.T. Thompson will begin the restructuring of the massive organization that oversees a $6 billion space portfolio.

In a keynote speech Tuesday at the 34th Space Symposium, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson offered a preview of the upcoming reorganization. The central goal, she said, is to take down the walls that keep programs in stovepipes and create a more unified enterprise that looks at systems horizontally from design to production.

SMC will have a “chief architect” to guide and look across the entire space enterprise, Wilson said. Two new offices will be created. One will focus on innovation. The other will work to increase partnerships with foreign allies and commercial space companies. [emphasis mine]

This is rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship. In fact, it is worse: It is buying more deck chairs for a sinking ship. Rather than cut the bureaucracy to simplify operations, they are creating more layers of bureaucracy on top of the old ones. The Air Force might be speeding up the design-to-launch of its satellites by switching to commercial products, but it appears that they aren’t saving the taxpayer any money as they do so.

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ULA’s Atlas 5 today successfully launched three U.S. military satellites

Three U.S. military satellites, one to provide communications and the other two testing experimental engineering, were successfully launched today by ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket.

The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

11 China
7 SpaceX
4 ULA
3 Japan
3 Russia
3 Europe
3 India

The U.S. is once again tied with China for the most launches this year.

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A detailed look at Orbital ATK’s Next Generation Launcher (NGL)

Link here. Based on the solid rocket technology developed for the shuttle and then for Ares, they hope to make the first launch in 2021, and actually do two flights that year to get certified by the Air Force so that they can bid on military launch contracts.

Development money for this rocket has come mostly from the Air Force, not from private funds raised by Orbital ATK. It also seems to me that it has taken far longer to get it built than it should if they really wanted to get a rocket up and running to compete for business. Moreover, they expect the Air Force to certify them after only two launches, while it took SpaceX a lawsuit and far more launches to get the same certification.

Thus, all told there is a bit of crony capitalism involved here. NGL might turn out to be a good deal, in the long run, but forgive me if I reserve my opinion.

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New Air Force launch contracts for SpaceX and ULA

Capitalism in space: The Air Force announced yesterday that it has awarded launch contracts to ULA and SpaceX worth nearly $650 million.

Colorado-based ULA was awarded a $355 million contract for its launch services to deliver two Air Force Space Command spacecraft, labeled AFSPC-8 and AFSPC-12, to orbit. The missions are expected to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station by June 2020 and March 2020, respectively.

…SpaceX, meanwhile, secured a $290 million contract to launch three next-generation Global Positioning System satellites for the Air Force, known as GPS III. The first is expected to launch from the Space Coast by March 2020, either from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 40 or Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A.

Note the price difference between the ULA and SpaceX.launches. ULA’s cost is $177.5 million per launch, while SpaceX’s is $96.7 million per launch. While it could be that the ULA launches need to cost more because of the nature of the payloads, I don’t buy it. The company simply charges too much, partly because its rockets are expensive. The Air Force however has a strategic need to have more than one launch company, so they bite their tongues and pay the larger amount.

I should add one positive aspect about ULA’s price. The price is considerably below what they used to charge, before SpaceX entered the game. Then, their lowest launch price was never less than $200 million, and usually much more. This lower price indicates they are working at getting competitive. Though SpaceX offers the Falcon Heavy at $90 million (with reused boosters) and $150 million (all new) to commercial customers, its price for the Air Force will likely be higher because of the Air Force’s stricter requirements. This means that ULA’s per launch price of $177.5 here is getting quite close to being competitive with the Falcon Heavy.

Note that the article mentions that SpaceX has also gotten two more commercial launch contracts with DigitalGlobe, so that company’s business continues to boom.

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Trump mentions interest in creating military “Space Force”

Blather and pork: In comments to soldiers in San Diego President Trump yesterday expressed interest in creating a military “Space Force” similar to the Air Force

“My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a warfighting domain, just like the land, air and sea,” Trump said during a Tuesday speech at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. “We may even have a Space Force, develop another one, Space Force. We have the Air Force, we’ll have the Space Force. We have the Army, the Navy.”

The administration’s National Security Strategy, released in December, repeatedly identifies space as a contested domain, a somewhat more dire take than its Obama-era predecessors, which recognized “threats posed by those who may wish to deny the peaceful use of outer space.”

“You know, I was saying it the other day — because we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space — I said maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the Space Force,” Trump said. “And I was not really serious, but I said, ‘What a great idea.’ Maybe we’ll have to do that. That could happen.”

Trump as usual is talking off the cuff, but might very well have a negotiating purpose. There are members of Congress who want it. Trump could possibly be considering a trade, I give you that, you let me cut this.

Or not. It is dangerous to over analyze many of Trump’s off-the-cuff statements. Many times he just does them to get some publicity and to annoy his opponents. Note also that top Air Force officials dodged this issue when asked at hearings to comment on Trump’s statement.

Bottom line however remains the same: Spending money on a Space Force dedicated to fighting in space would be, at this time, a complete waste of money. It would be pork, pure and simple.

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Air Force reconsiders rocket engine, aims for small rocket launches

Two stories over the past few days indicated some shifts in the Air Force’s commercial space contracting policies.

The first story has to do with ULA’s Atlas 5 and future Vulcan rockets. The engine that Aerojet Rocketdyne has been building, AR-1, has received significant subsidizes from the government for its construction, even though its only potential customer, ULA, has said it prefers Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine. ULA has not made a decision yet on which engine to use, but my sense of the politics here is that the main reason ULA is considering the AR-1 is because of heavy political pressure. Nonetheless, it makes sense for them to hold off from a final decision when they have two competitors.

The story suggests however that Aeroject Rocketdyne itself lacks confidence in the engine. It wants to renegotiate its Air Force contract so that it doesn’t have to invest any of its own money on development. This suggests the company no longer expects to get any contracts for it, and thus doesn’t want to spend any of its own money on it. With that kind lack of commitment, the Air Force would be foolish to change the deal.

The second story outlines how the Air Force is now committing real money for buying launch contracts with smallsat rocket companies, something it has hinted it wanted to do for the past year. The idea is for them to depend on numerous small and cheap satellites, capable of quick launch, givingthem a cushion and redundancy should an enemy nation attack their satellites. It will also likely save them money in the long run.

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Air Force issues bid requests for five future launches

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has issued a new request for bids on five future satellite launches, with SpaceX and ULA to compete for each.

The Air Force on Wednesday released a final request for proposals for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launch services for two National Reconnaissance Office payloads, the fifth Space-Based Infrared System geosynchronous Earth orbit satellite, an Air Force Space Command mission dubbed AFSPC-44 and a secret surveillance mission code-named SilentBarker.

Proposals are due April 16 and contracts are expected to be awarded in late 2018.

…The existence of SilentBarker surfaced last year during a House Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee hearing when Gen. John Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command, explained that the Air Force and the NRO were developing a “space situational awareness architecture” to help improve the protection of satellites from enemy attacks. SilentBarker is the name of the program.

Why do I have the sneaking suspicion that SilentBarker and Zuma have something to do with each other?

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Air Force reaffirms its SpaceX certification after Zuma

In another indication to me that SpaceX had nothing to do with the claimed failure of the secret government Zuma mission (assuming it failed at all), the commander of the Air Force space unit said today that SpaceX’s Air Force launch certification remains unchanged.

“Based on the data available, our team did not identify any information that would change SpaceX’s Falcon 9 certification status,” Bloomberg News quoted Lt. Gen. John Thompson as saying in a statement today.

At this moment, we really have no idea whether Zuma succeeded or not. The government might say it failed, but it has provided no evidence to prove that. Moreover, this statement by the head of the Air Force space division makes me very much inclined to believe that not only did SpaceX’s rocket perform perfectly, but that Zuma was a success as well. And that success probably includes an effort to hide the mission’s success with the disinformation campaign that followed launch.

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