Tag Archives: Air Force

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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ULA settles lawsuit that said it defrauded government of $90 million

ULA has settled a lawsuit with a whistleblower who claimed the company had defrauded the federal government of at least $90 million by overbilling employee work hours.

Unlike the commercial marketplace where prices of goods and services are determined by market forces including competition, sellers in the aerospace industry face little or no competition and contract pricing is based largely on a contractor’s estimated costs, the lawsuit says.

ULA charged the government tens of millions of dollars for work that was never performed and inflated the estimated labor hours including the time required to buy parts and materials from vendors, the lawsuit says.

ULA retaliated against Scott [the whistleblower] by forcing him out of the company after he revealed the alleged illegal activities. ULA officials placed a camera above his desk, monitored and questioned his cell phone and computer use, and suggested he violated the law or engaged in improper bidding practices himself, the lawsuit says.

ULA used a system called the Keith Crohn model that creates a grid using the cost of equipment to reach an employee cost. A labor value was placed on the grid for every item ordered through the company’s purchasing department. For example, any item that cost between $1 and $1,000 would be assigned a labor value of 8 hours. It didn’t matter what part it was, the lawsuit said. The U.S. bans arbitrary cost estimates when actual data is available that establishes the cost.

The first paragraph of the quote above actually describes the bad deal that the Air Force made with ULA back in the early 2000s, giving the company a monopoly on launches while subsidizing it to the tune of $1 billion per year. That deal is now dead, and ULA is instead forced to compete with SpaceX (and soon others I hope) for launch contracts. Not surprisingly, their prices have dropped considerably.

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Air Force to shift focus to smallsat constellations

The head of the the Air Force’s Strategic Command revealed this past weekend that he wants the military to quickly shift its focus to buying small satellite constellations.

As one of nine U.S. combatant commanders, Hyten has a say in how the Pentagon plans investments in new technology. With regard to military satellites, STRATCOM will advocate for a change away from “exquisite” costly systems that take years to develop in favor of “more resilient, more distributed capabilities.” This is the thinking of the new “space enterprise vision” adopted by the Air force and the National Reconnaissance Office, Hyten said. “That vision is about defending ourselves. In that vision you won’t find any of those big, exquisite, long-term satellites.”

“I’ve made a call at U.S. Strategic Command that we’ll embrace that as a vision of the future because I think it’s the correct one,” he added. STRATCOM will “drive requirements,” Hyten noted, “And, as a combatant commander, I won’t support the development any further of large, big, fat, juicy targets. I won’t support that,” he insisted. “We are going to go down a different path. And we have to go down that path quickly.”

Makes sense to me. Not only will the Air Force save money, but their satellite assets will be harder to attack and easier to sustain and replace should they be attacked.

For the satellite industry this shift will accelerate the growth of the smallsat industry, and provide a lot more business for the new smallsat rocket industry that is now emerging.

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Senate kills military “Space Corps”

As part of this year’s military budget bill, the Senate has eliminated a House proposal that the military create a new military branch called the “Space Corps.”

The bill also completely overhauls the management of the military’s space effort, as described in detail here.

The NDAA conference report blasts the Air Force for a “broken national security space enterprise,” strips key authorities from the service and shifts much of the management of military space to the deputy secretary of defense.

The second link focuses on the management changes, while the first reviews in great detail the Senate’s budget proposals, which (surprise, surprise!) give the military more money.

In addition to changes in space-related policy, the bill would also fully authorize a pay increase for service members, increase missile defense, and add additional ships and aircraft. “The bill fully funds the 2.4% pay raise our troops are entitled to under law while blocking the President’s ability to reduce troop pay,” according to the summary.

It authorizes funding for a wide variety of additional military hardware including 90 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters across the service branches — 20 more than requested by President Donald Trump’s initial budget — and three additional Littoral Combat Ships.

The bill also “adds $4.4 billion above the President’s initial budget request to meet critical missile defense needs” — authorizing up to 28 additional ground-based Interceptors and “requiring the Missile Defense Agency to develop a space-based sensor layer for ballistic missile defense,” according to the summary.

However, the bill would also set defense spending well above the $549 billion cap under the Budget Control Act [sequestration] and Senate Democrats have vowed to block major increases to defense spending without equal increases for domestic programs.

I am not sure what to make of the management changes, though I like the elimination of the Space Corps, which was an absurd waste of money. The proposed budget increases are disturbing, however. I am especially appalled (but not surprised) at the push to eliminate sequestration, which has been the only bill passed by Republicans that has done anything to control the federal governments wasteful spending.

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ULA’s Atlas 5 successfully launches surveillance satellite

Capitalism in space: ULA today successfully launched a reconnaissance satellite using its Atlas 5 rocket.

This was ULA’s seventh launch for the year, putting them behind the launch rate since the company’s formation of about a dozen launches per year. At the moment the seven launches matches 2008, the year with the fewest launches. With only two launches listed for the rest of the year, 2017 could be the first time since 2010 that ULA has not reached double digits in launches.

Whether this drop represents a long term drop in business is unclear. The company is definitely under price pressure from SpaceX and others, but that pressure had not significantly reduced their launch rate in the past four years. It will take a few more years to see.

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Blue Origin considering military certification for New Glenn

Capitlism in space: Blue Origin is in discussions with military and national security officials in order to find out what the company must do to get its New Glenn rocket, presently under development, certified to bid on military launches.

Only a few days ago I speculated that Blue Origin might have a chance to bid on the Air Force’s new request for proposals for launches after 2022. This story confirms that they are thinking the same thing.

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Air Force shifting to commercial space products

In order to save money and speed development, the Air Force is shifting its policy from building all its own space products to buying them from commercial companies.

The desire to leverage more commercial technology came after the Army concluded that a pre-planned modernization path would have taken until 2032 to complete, and ultimately would have cost more than desired, James Mingus, director of the Army’s Mission Command Center of Excellence, said Oct. 10 at the Association of the United States Army conference here. “We are going to halt programs that are not sufficiently, or cannot be sufficiently remedied; we are going to fix those programs we need to be able to “fight tonight,” and then we are going to pivot to an ‘adapt and buy’ approach,” he said.

Being able to “fight tonight” means maintaining the necessary telecommunications infrastructure to engage in combat at a moment’s notice. Beyond keeping that capability steady, the Army wants to apply commercial solutions, which Mingus said “probably meet the majority” of the Army’s needs.

This process began when SpaceX forced the Air Force to open up its launch bids to competition. It has continued as commercial space has shown itself to be fast and innovative and capable of meeting the Air Force’s needs quickly and cheaply. It has probably been accelerated again by the Trump administration itself. In the end, by trusting private enterprise to provide the Air Force what it needs, the country’s economy will grow, and it will do so efficiently, while the government will save money and get what it needs, sooner.

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Air Force releases request for launch proposals

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has released a new request for proposals for providing launch services after 2022.

The Air Force has released a request for proposal for its next iteration of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, known as EELV, to be used on space lift such as the Atlas V, Delta IV, and Falcon 9 rocket systems. The service said Thursday it plans to award “at least three agreements” for prototype development as part of its Launch Services Agreement strategy.

The news comes amid the Air Force’s attempt to move away from its use of Russian-made RD-180 engines.

Though I doubt Blue Origin will have launched enough to get certified by the Air Force when the contracts are awarded in 2020, expect them to demand a pie of the action soon thereafter.

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Federal bureaucracy prevents satellite launch

We’re here to help you! A suite of 8 private commercial cubesats that the Air Force had agreed to launch as secondary payloads on the August 26 launch of a Minotaur rocket were blocked from launch by FAA bureaucracy.

The “interagency partner” that appeared to raise objections was the Federal Aviation Administration, which issued the launch license for the mission. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not approve Orbital ATK’s request for a license modification to include commercial cubesats on the upcoming ORS-5 launch mission,” Guthrie said. “As a result, Orbital ATK decided not to include commercial cubesats on the launch.”

Asked if the FAA placed any conditions or restrictions on the ORS-5 mission launched on the Minotaur 4, agency spokesman Hank Price said the FAA issued Orbital ATK a license Feb. 10 to launch government payloads on the Minotaur 4 from Cape Canaveral. The launch license contains any and all conditions on the license, Price said, and the FAA does not comment on the “existence or status of launch license applications or modifications until the FAA makes a final decision regarding those requests.”

Industry sources believe the FAA never formally rejected a proposed license modification for the cubesats because it did not go through the official process, but it was informally clear that the agency would have rejected such a modification had it been formally submitted.

Spire officials are trying to figure out why there was any issue at all about commercial cubesats on this launch. “If Spire chose this launch in the place of another commercial offering, I would understand the industry’s concern about fair competition,” Barna said. “But no existing U.S. launch company or new entrant was offering a similar launch. The fundamental intent of the policy is to keep competition fair, and competition just wasn’t a factor here.”

Spire’s problems here demonstrates the difficulties smallsat companies have getting their satellites in orbit, which explains the emergence of a new smallsat rocket industry. The company’s difficulties also illustrates why the launch industry should always be opposed to giving too much regulatory power to government. In this case it really appears that the launch license was denied merely because the bureaucrats involved with approving it at the FAA simply didn’t want to bother dealing with it.

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Five satellite Air Force contract up for bid

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has announced that it will be soliciting bids from SpaceX and ULA for a 5-satellite launch contract.

Claire Leon, director of the Launch Enterprise Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, told reporters that grouping launches together was an effort to streamline and speed the acquisition process at a time when the national security sector is demanding ever-increasing access to space. “By doing five at once, it makes our acquisition more efficient and it allows the contractors to put in one proposal,” she said.

This grouping however might make it impossible for SpaceX to win the contract, as the company’s Falcon 9 rocket might not be capable of launching all five satellites, and its Falcon Heavy has not yet flown the three times necessary before the Air Force will consider using it.

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ULA wins Air Force launch contract

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has awarded ULA a $191 million launch contract in only the third competitively bid Air Force contract in decades.

The Air Force put the STP-3 launch up for bid in September 2016, giving SpaceX and ULA until December to submit proposals. It’s just the third competitively-bid national security space launch contract after an era where ULA — a joint venture between defense industry giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin — was the government’s sole source for launches.

The effort is part of the Air Force’s “Phase 1A,” an effort to “reintroduce a competitive procurement environment” into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, the service said. This particular phase is set to cover 15 competitively-bid launches through 2019, at which point the military hopes to have several launch providers as options.

SpaceX won the first two launch contracts, including a GPS 3 launch that was awarded in March.

This contract award is not as competitive as they make it seem. I suspect that if the Air Force was required to take the lowest bid, SpaceX would have won, since its launch prices are far less than $191 million. Instead, I think the Air Force gave this contract to ULA because SpaceX had won the previous two bids, and they wanted to give some business to ULA in order to keep that company viable.

In the short run, this policy will keep ULA above water. In the long run, the company is in serious trouble if it can’t lower its launch prices significantly.

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Air Force budget reveals cost differences between ULA and SpaceX

Eric Berger at Ars Technica has found that the most recent Air Force budget provides a good estimate of the price ULA charges the military for its launches.

According to the Air Force estimate, the “unit cost” of a single rocket launch in fiscal year 2020 is $422 million, and $424 million for a year later.

This is a complex number to unpack. But based upon discussions with various space policy experts, this is the maximum amount the Air Force believes it will need to pay, per launch, if United Launch Alliance is selected for all of its launch needs in 2020. ULA launches about a half-dozen payloads for the Air Force in a given year, on variants of its rockets. Therefore, the 2020 unit cost likely includes a mix of mostly Atlas V rockets (sold on the commercial market for about $100 million) and perhaps one Delta rocket launch (up to $350 million on the commercial market for a Heavy variant).

In other words, the $422 million estimate per launch is the most they will pay. Atlas 5 launches will certainly be less, about $100 to $150 million, while the Falcon 9 will likely be under $100 million. What they are doing is budgeting high so they guarantee they have the money they need to pay for the most expensive launches, usually on the Delta Heavy.

From my perspective, they are budgeting far too high, and if I was in Congress I would insist that this number be reduced significantly, especially considering this Air Force statement on page 109 of the budget document [pdf]:

The Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) agreed to a coordinated strategy for certification of New Entrants to launch payloads in support of NSS and other USG requirements which has so far resulted in the certification of one New Entrant. The Air Force continues to actively work with potential New Entrants to reliably launch NSS requirements. The Government may award early integration contracts to ensure each potential offeror’s launch system is compatible with the intended payload. Beginning in Fiscal Year 2018, the Air Force will compete all launch service procurements for each mission where more than one certified provider can service the required reference orbit. [emphasis mine]

The “New Entrant” is of course SpaceX. They are also saying that they are going to encourage competitive bidding now on all future launch contracts.

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Air Force awards SpaceX contract to launch next X-37B mission

Capitalism in space: The Air Force has awarded SpaceX the contract to launch the next X-37B mission, presently scheduled to launch in August.

The contract amount was not announced, but it certainly is going to be less than ULA charged for its own launches of the X-37B. Also, this launch is scheduled only two months hence, which means SpaceX has to somehow wedge it into its already crowded schedule.

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