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SpaceX to transition to fully reusable fleet for national security launches

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force expects to clear SpaceX to use previously flown boosters for all national security missions. So far the Space Force only has agreed to allow reused boosters in two GPS launches scheduled in 2021 but the plan is to make the entire fleet reusable by 2022. 

“Over the next 18 months we’ll complete the transition to a fully reusable SpaceX fleet for our national security missions,” Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise, said Nov. 19.

The Falcon 9 rockets that launched two military GPS satellites June 30 and Nov. 5 both had brand-new boosters which the company recovered after launch. After renegotiating its contract with the Space Force, SpaceX will use the recovered boosters from the June and November launches to fly two more GPS satellites in 2021.

Speaking on Thursday at an Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute online forum, Bongiovi said the renegotiated deals saved the government $65 million over the four GPS launches in 2020 and 2021.

The Space Force transition to a reusable fleet is significant because up until now SpaceX was required to fly brand-new boosters for national security missions. The company routinely recovers and reuses rocket hardware in its commercial and NASA launches, but the Space Force needed time to figure out a process to certify previously flown boosters. 

Bongiovi said the Space Force Launch Enterprise lays stringent “mission assurance” requirements on launch providers to minimize the risk of losing expensive payloads in failed launches. He said the SpaceX Falcon fleet has improved its processes and increased its reliability. 

United Launch Alliance and SpaceX were selected Aug. 7 as the Space Force’s primary launch providers from 2022 to 2027. 

Besides the transition to a reusable SpaceX fleet, another key goal for the Launch Enterprise, said Bongiovi, is to get ULA’s new vehicle, the Vulcan Centaur, certified for its first national security mission in 2022. 

’Unfortunate’ Delta 4 delays

Bongiovi said he remains concerned about the setbacks suffered by ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy rocket in attempting to launch the NROL-44 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office.

“I think this is an unfortunate delay,” he said.

The vehicle carrying a classified spy satellite has been sitting on the ground at Cape Canaveral, Florida, since the first launch attempt Aug. 29 ended with a hot-fire abort. 

“We never like to have a launch vehicle and a satellite sitting so long,” Bongiovi said. “But we need to make sure we launch when we’re ready,” he said. The priority is to “make sure this launch is successful.”

After the Aug. 29 abort there were other attempts that also ended in scrubs due to problems with the ground equipment and bad weather. 

ULA said it continues to test the hardware and is taking a broad look at the Delta 4 ground equipment both at Cape Canaveral and at Vandenberg Air Force, California.

The company has not yet announced a new target launch date for NROL-44.

ULA is under contract to fly NROL-44 and four more Delta 4 Heavy missions for the NRO over the next four years before the vehicle is retired. 

“We’ve always had fly-out concerns on the Delta 4 Heavy,” said Bongiovi. However, he said, the risk of moving sensitive NRO payloads to another launch vehicle is “much higher than the risk of flying out Delta 4 Heavy. I still think that’s true.”


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Space Force official: Launch scrubs are no reason to despair

WASHINGTON — A streak of United Launch Alliance and SpaceX launch scrubs has frustrated rocket company executives and space aficionados. But Space Force launch managers are not discouraged, and in fact see scrubs as proof that systems are working like they should, Col. Douglas Pentecost said Oct. 22.

ULA and SpaceX rockets over the past two months aborted launches just seconds before liftoff. “We see that as a success,” said Pentecost, the deputy director of the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise.

Pentecost spoke at a virtual space industry conference organized by AFCEA, the National Defense Industrial Association and the Air Force Association.

Launches were terminated because rockets saw “that something looked amiss,” he said. “That’s how we designed the system.”

ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy attempted in August and September to launch the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-44 satellite but ground equipment problems caused scrubs. ULA said last week that the company is testing the swing arm retraction system and has not yet announced a launch date. 

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of a Space Force GPS 3 satellite was aborted Oct. 2 due to an unexpected pressure rise in the turbomachinery gas generator on the launch vehicle. The company has not announced a new launch date. 

“Falcon 9 and Delta 4 stopped within seconds of launch? This is good stuff,” said Pentecost. ‘We’re learning a lot, we’re working with both ULA and SpaceX to understand what happened.”

Pentecost said the Space Force is planning to send three satellites to orbit in November, suggesting both NROL-44 and GPS 3 could be ready to launch next month. The third launch would be NROL-101, an NRO mission scheduled to fly on ULA’s Atlas 5.

NRO spokeswoman Maura Beard told SpaceNews that the agency emphasizes safety over schedule. “The series of delays we have experienced with NROL-44 are understandably disappointing,” she said. “But safety on the range and security of the payload are paramount.”


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SpaceX to explore ways to provide weather data to U.S. military

WASHINGTON — SpaceX is looking at ways it could provide weather data to the U.S. military. The company is working under a $2 million six-month study contract from the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

Charlotte Gerhart, chief of the Space and Missile Systems Center Production Corps Low Earth Orbit Division, said in a statement to SpaceNews that SpaceX received the contract in July from SMC’s Space Enterprise Consortium.

The contract is to “assess the feasibility and long term viability of a ‘weather data as a service business model,’” said Gerhart. 

SpaceX did not respond to questions from SpaceNews on how the company would leverage the Starlink internet constellation to provide weather data.

The contract awarded to SpaceX is part of a Space Force program called Electro Optical/Infrared Weather System (EO/IR EWS). The consortium in June awarded $309 million in contracts to Raytheon Technologies, General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, and Atmospheric & Space Technology Research Associates to develop weather satellite prototypes and payloads.

SpaceX won the portion of the EO/IR EWS program that is looking at how weather data could be purchased as a service from a commercial company.  

“The EWS program goal remains to provide a more resilient and higher refresh capability, enhancing global terrestrial weather capability,” said Gerhart. 

The SpEC consortium was created in 2017 to attract commercial space businesses to work with the military. The contracts awarded by SpEC are known as “other transaction authority” deals that are used for research projects and prototyping.

The consortium on Oct. 8 informed its members that SpaceX had won the weather study contract.

“The Air Force is pursuing a space-based environmental monitoring EO/IR system in a multi phased approach,” the SpEC said in an email to members.

The EO/IR EWS program is looking at a future proliferated low-Earth orbit constellation to focus on cloud characterization and theater weather imagery that could be supplemented by commercial services. SpaceX’s contract is for the “weather data as a service system architecture exploration phase,” said SpEC.

Industry sources speculated that SpaceX could provide weather data collected by sensors aboard its own Starlink satellites, or it could team with  a weather data services company and use Starlink to distribute the data to customers .

One executive noted that both the U.S. military and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have growing demands for data that can be provided at relatively low cost from companies that operate proliferated LEO systems. 

“Both NOAA and the Air Force have been evaluating commercial weather data for several years,” said John Fisher, president and chief technology officer of Brandywine Photonics, a company that develops weather payloads for small satellites.

“Companies that can vertically integrate payloads, spacecraft, launch, and low-latency optical crosslinks will have a distinct advantage in future releases of NOAA and Air Force commercial weather data pilot program requests for proposals,” Fisher told SpaceNews.  “Good weather data now from a low-cost constellation of smallsats is better than perfect data an hour later from a single expensive satellite.”


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SpaceX’s contract to launch GPS satellites modified to allow reuse of Falcon 9 boosters

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for the first time next year will launch a military GPS satellite with a previously flown main booster, the U.S. Space Force announced Sept. 25.

The company reached an agreement earlier this month with the Space and Missile Systems Center so SpaceX can launch two GPS satellites next year using previously flown boosters. SMC said this will save the government more than $52 million in launch costs. 

Although SpaceX routinely recovers and reuses rocket hardware in its commercial and NASA launches, the U.S. military has only recently started to allow SpaceX to recover boosters in GPS missions. The company on June 30 launched the 3rd vehicle of the GPS 3 constellation with a brand-new Falcon 9 booster and recovered it. 

The 4th GPS 3 vehicle scheduled to launch Sept. 29 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, will fly on a new Falcon 9 that SpaceX will attempt to recover. For the launches of the 5th and 6th GPS vehicles next year, SpaceX will use previously flown boosters. 

“I am thrilled to welcome SpaceX’s innovative reuse into the National Security Space Launch program,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a statement.

During a call with reporters Sept. 25, Walt Lauderdale, SMC’s Falcon Systems and Operations Division chief, said the contract modifications for the upcoming GPS 3 missions will save the government $52.7 million 

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said in a statement: “We appreciate the effort that the U.S. Space Force invested into the evaluation and are pleased that they see the benefits of the technology.”

SpaceX’s existing contract to launch GPS 3 satellites ends after vehicle 6.  Lockheed Martin is producing four more satellites (7 through 10) but the launches have not been awarded yet. Lauderdale said those missions will be awarded under the Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch program. United Launch Alliance and SpaceX will compete head to head for all Phase 2 missions. 

SMC had planned to start flying payloads on previously flown Falcon 9s in Phase 2 but decided to get an early start with the current GPS contract.

“That will set us up for our partnership with SpaceX for Phase 2 over the next year,” said Lauderdale.

To allow reused boosters and get the cost savings, SMC had delay the 5th GPS 3 launch from January to July 2021 to allow time for design validation and “make sure we understand how SpaceX refurbishes previously flown hardware,” Lauderdale said. “This gets us started before Phase 2. We’re getting going now.”


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DoD watchdog: There’s nothing wrong with how Air Force certifies new launch vehicles

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department’s inspector general conducted a nearly year-long investigation into the processes used by the U.S. Air Force to certify that rockets are safe and reliable to launch government satellites.

The IG review that began in February 2019 specifically looked at whether the Air Force complied with its own guidelines and policies when it certified SpaceX’s rockets to launch national security payloads.

The final report on the investigation was released Sept. 9 by Randolph Stone, assistant IG for evaluations for space, intelligence, engineering and oversight.

The heavily redacted report says the agency responsible for launch vehicle certification, the Space and Missile Systems Center, fully complied with the Air Force’s New Entrant Certification Guide (NECG) when it certified the SpaceX Falcon family of launch vehicles.

It was never disclosed why the DoD watchdog agency began this review. In general, IG investigations are triggered by whistleblower complaints or directed by a member of Congress.

The IG’s evaluation of SMC’s processes for validating rockets for national security launch was completed in December 2019. Along the way, the probe was expanded after three other space launch providers’ new entrant launch vehicles were submitted for certification as competitors in the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 procurement competition.

Northrop Grumman’s OmegA, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn were undergoing certification processes as the IG review was in progress. The IG said those processes were all in compliance with the NECG. The Air Force last month selected ULA and SpaceX as the winners of the Phase 2 procurement.

Concerns about GPS 3 launch, reused hardware

Although the IG in the final report found no faults with SMC’s certification process, it did flag some issues in an earlier draft report. The Air Force in a July 22, 2020, letter pushed back on the findings of the draft report and submitted documentation that contradicted the IG’s assessment. As a result, the IG in the final report opted to not recommend any changes to SMC’s reviews and processes.

The two main concerns the IG raised in the draft report were the following:

  • The IG suggested that in order to meet launch schedules, SMC was limiting the time to conduct independent verification and validation of a provider’s launch vehicle. The IG criticized SMC for rushing to declare SpaceX’s Falcon 9 ready to fly a GPS 3 satellite in December 2018 without allowing sufficient time to validate the company’s data.
  • The IG questioned SMC’s processes to assess the risk of allowing the use of previously flown launch vehicle components. The report points out that SMC did not establish standards for assessing the reliability of reusable launch vehicle components until March 2019.

After the draft report was sent to the Air Force, the director of SMC’s launch enterprise Col. Robert Bongiovi submitted “additional documentation which SMC did not provide us during the evaluation,” the IG said. After reviewing those documents, the IG removed recommendations to address those two issues it had flagged in the draft report.

Bongiovi in the July 22 letter insisted that no unnecessary risk was taken with the GPS 3 launch and challenged the IG’s assumption that schedule was more important than mission assurance.

On the question of whether the Air Force has procedures to certify SpaceX’s previously flown boosters or other hardware for NSSL missions, Bongiovi said this was addressed in preparation for the Phase 2 selection of launch providers. The Air Force developed technical guidance and processes for safe hardware reuse, Bongiovi wrote: ”The Launch Enterprise embraced reusability and explicitly enabled it as part of the ongoing Phase 2 competition.”


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Space Force: Too early to say if military will need ‘super heavy’ launch vehicles

WASHINGTON — The launch vehicles the U.S. Space Force selected last month to fly its satellites — United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur, and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy — meet the national security needs for the foreseeable future, said Brig. Gen. D. Jason Cothern, who oversees launch services procurement for the U.S. Space Force.

“We are super excited about the future of space launch,” Cothern, the vice commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said Sept. 8 during a virtual forum hosted by the RAND Corp.

Cothern however would not speculate on whether the Space Force might one day have a need for the super heavy reusable launchers like SpaceX’s Starship or Blue Origin’s New Glenn.

“We believe the current providers address the plans we have today for the near future,” Cothern said in response to a viewer’s question on the potential military value of super heavy-lift vehicles like Starship and New Glenn that are being developed to fly to the moon and beyond.

SMC is focused on ensuring “100 percent mission success” and is looking forward to working with ULA and SpaceX in Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch program, said Cothern. As to what might be required in the next generation of launch vehicles, “as the lead acquirers for military space, it’s a question that’s dear to us,” he said.

What type of launch vehicles will be needed “depends on the threats,” said Cothern. “We start with requirements and architectures, understanding the threats and determining what the requirements and architectures are to meet those threats.”

The RAND forum included a panel discussion centered around the company’s space launch market study. The study’s recommendations have stirred a continuing debate about the role of the U.S. military in shaping the future of the launch industry.

Bonnie Triezenberg, a RAND senior engineer and lead author of the study, argued that the Air Force made the right decision selecting two providers for the Phase 2 launch procurement, but should also consider supporting additional companies to bolster the U.S. industrial base.

Cothern said the Space Force has no plans to financially support launch providers outside of the two winners of Phase 2. If Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin want to have their new vehicles certified for national security launch, they will have to fund the cost, he said. “We’ll continue to work with any of the non-selected Phase 2 launch service providers that choose to continue with the launch vehicle certification efforts at their expense.”


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Space Force more receptive to reusable rockets as it continues to review SpaceX missions

WASHINGTON — SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to date has performed 86 launches, in 47 of which the rocket’s first stage landed back on earth.

While rocket landings have become the norm for SpaceX launches, none has been done yet in a national security mission.

SpaceX is about to make its first attempt to recover the booster after launching a military satellite. The company on June 30 is scheduled to launch a Global Positioning System satellite from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

This will be SpaceX’s second GPS launch. The first was in December 2018 but that mission used an expendable rocket with no legs or grid fins because the Air Force determined the vehicle could not perform the required mission trajectory and also bring the first stage back.

The second GPS launch was originally contracted to use an expendable rocket as well, but over the past year launch managers at the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center negotiated a deal with SpaceX to allow the company to recover the booster.

SMC agreed to revise some mission requirements so SpaceX could fly back the booster and in exchange the company took off “several million dollars” off the price of the launch, said Walter Lauderdale, chief of the Falcon’s systems operations operation division at SMC’s Launch Enterprise. The original contract awarded to SpaceX in 2017 was for $96.5 million.

Speaking on June 26 during a call with reporters, Lauderdale said it took months of reviews and examinations of Falcon 9 mission data before SMC decided it could make tradeoffs to allow the booster recovery and still get the GPS satellite to the intended location in medium Earth orbit.

Extensive evaluations and some vehicle modifications made by SpaceX “reduced uncertainty in many areas,” said Lauderdale.

Since the December 2018 launch, SMC has gained more confidence that a Falcon 9 can meet the GPS mission needs and bring back the first stage too, said Lauderdale. “For this launch campaign flow we completed 362 verification tasks and evaluated over 230 risks.”

“SpaceX used the experience of our first launch campaign together to improve their processes,” he said. “This led to a 40 percent reduction in the number of questions we presented to them” compared to the first GPS mission.

“We evaluated the information from all SpaceX flights to ensure no cause for concerns for this mission,” Lauderdale said.

But he cautioned that the decision to allow SpaceX to recover the booster on this mission does not mean every national security mission will be suitable for reusable rockets.

SpaceX is providing a new booster for this launch. There are currently no plans to use a previously flown booster in any future GPS launches. SpaceX is under contract to fly three more GPS missions over the next two years.

“I can’t commit to when we’ll be ready” to let SpaceX launch a national security satellite using a previously flown booster, said Lauderdale. “Part of that journey is becoming familiar with how SpaceX is doing their work.”

SMC in May awarded SpaceX a $8.9 million “fleet surveillance” contract that allows government engineers to monitor how SpaceX recovers and refurbishes used boosters.

In the coming weeks DoD will select two launch providers for the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement. Two of the bidders — SpaceX and Blue Origin — will be offering reusable launch systems.

“In Phase 2 we allow providers to bid previously flown systems,” said Lauderdale. “We’re open to whatever industry wants to make available to us.”

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Space Force to get deeper insight into inner workings of SpaceX commercial launches

WASHINGTON — SpaceX on May 6 was awarded an $8.9 million contract modification that gives the U.S. Space Force direct insight into the inner workings of the company’s commercial and civil space missions.

The contract for “non-National Security Space fleet surveillance” gives the Space Force access to SpaceX missions until November.

“This contract provides for non-NSS fleet surveillance efforts across the SpaceX family of launch vehicles for non-NSS missions,” said the contract announcement. The $8.9 million is an addition to an existing $297 million contract awarded to SpaceX in February 2019 for three national security launches.

A spokesman for the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center said in a statement that the contract modification “enables the Space Force to engage in engineering surveillance of SpaceX’s fleet of launch vehicles for non-NSS launches.”

The existing $297 million fixed-price launch service contract requires SpaceX to provide access to data and analyses of the launch vehicle systems, the spokesman said. But it did not include access to “tools, systems, processes and launch site activities developed by the launch service provider for non-NSS missions.” These tools are unique and proprietary, developed by launch providers for analyzing data generated by their internal systems.

Under Phase 1A of the National Security Space Launch program, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance received multiple contracts over the past four years, and many of those missions have not flown yet. SMC said a similar fleet surveillance modification for Phase 1A contracts will be awarded to ULA. Access to fleet surveillance also will be required in Phase 2 launch service procurement contracts scheduled to be awarded later this year.

The SpaceX contract gives SMC visibility into the company’s operations during an especially active launch period as SpaceX deploys its Starlink broadband internet constellation with its fleet of Falcon 9 rockets. So far seven Starlink missions have been launched and several more are planned before the end of the year. SpaceX also is preparing to launch a commercial crew NASA mission to fly two astronauts to the International Space Station.

The access to the company’s internal operations will help the Space Force “enhance mission assurance for NSS launches using the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles,” the SMC spokesman said. “Engineering insight into all launches by an NSS launch provider such as SpaceX directly contributes to increased reliability of national security launches.”