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Falcon 9 launches GPS satellite in first national security mission with reused booster

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a U.S. Space Force GPS 3 satellite June 17. The rocket lifted off at 12:09 p.m. Eastern from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. 

The Falcon 9 launched the Lockheed Martin-built GPS 3 Space Vehicle 5 — the 5th satellite of the GPS 3 constellation that provides positioning, navigation and timing signals to military and civilian users.

With this launch, the Space Force officially enters the era of reusable rockets. GPS 3 SV-5 was the first National Security Space Launch mission where SpaceX used a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage. The booster — designated B1062 — was recovered Nov. 5 after the launch of GPS 3 SV-4.

The rocket’s first stage separated from the second stage approximately two minutes and 40 seconds after liftoff. About eight minutes and 35 seconds after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s first stage touched down on the “Just Read the Instructions” droneship off the coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.

The booster landing was the third time SpaceX recovered the Falcon 9 first stage in a National Security Space Launch mission and the 88th successful recovery of a first stage by the company. 

The GPS 3 SV-5 satellite will join the constellation of 31 spacecraft that operate in medium Earth orbit at an altitude of 12,550 miles in six orbital planes. Each satellite circles the Earth twice per day.

The June 17 mission was SpaceX’s fourth launch of a military GPS 3 satellite under the National Security Space Launch program. The first was on Dec. 23, 2018, the second one took place on June 30, 2020 and the third on Nov. 5, 2020.

The company is under contract to launch GPS 3 SV-6 next year.

Col. Robert Bongiovi, the director of the Space Force Launch Enterprise, said SpaceX will continue to fly reused boosters in national security missions.  

“We are building on the successful booster recoveries of GPS 3 SV-3 and GPS 2 SV-4 last year and making a historic step with the GPS 3 SV-5 mission using a previously flown vehicle,” he said. “The affordability and flexibility provided with SpaceX’s reused launch vehicles open additional opportunities for future NSSL missions.”

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Upcoming SpaceX mission a reusability milestone for national security launch

WASHINGTON — The upcoming SpaceX launch of a GPS 3 satellite scheduled for June 17 will be the first national security space mission to use a refurbished Falcon 9 booster.  The U.S. Space Force initially ordered an expendable rocket but agreed to the switch with a caveat: the reused booster had to be the one that flew another GPS 3 satellite to orbit last November. 

A Space Force official told reporters June 14 that this requirement is just for this mission as the military gets more comfortable with reusability. In the future SpaceX will be able to bid for national security launch contracts “with no restrictions on reusability,” said Walter Lauderdale, deputy mission director of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise. 

This means the Space Force will allow SpaceX to fly future national security missions on Falcon 9 boosters that previously launched commercial or NASA payloads.

“Later this year we’ll work with them on what boosters are available. Not just those flown for national security launch, we’re open to using others,” Lauderdale said during a conference call with reporters.

Lauderdale said it’s taken SMC’s Launch Enterprise several years to get to this point after working with SpaceX and gaining a better understanding of how its fleet operates. 

SpaceX’s first mission under the National Security Space Launch program in December 2018 — GPS 3 SV-01 — flew on an expendable rocket. For the second and third GPS 3 launches in June and November 2020 (GPS 3 SV-03 and SV-04), the Space Force allowed SpaceX to recover the boosters. For the next two GPS 3 missions, GPS 3 SV-05 and SV-06, the company will be able to fly reused boosters and recover them. 

SpaceX received a bulk contract worth $290.5 million to launch GPS 3 SV-04, SV-05 and SV-06. After agreeing to booster recovery and reuse, the price was reduced by $64 million over the three missions, Lauderdale said. 

GPS 3 SV-06 is projected to launch in 2022. 

For the launch of SV-06 SpaceX will be allowed to offer a booster that has flown more than twice, said Lauderdale.

There are still four more GPS 3 launch contracts to be awarded under Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch program. SpaceX and United Launch Alliance are the two launch providers selected for Phase 2 for a five-year period from 2022 to 2027.  Under the terms of the contract, the Space Force has to give ULA 60 percent of the missions over the five years and SpaceX 40 percent. 

Given SpaceX’s win streak with GPS missions, the company is likely to launch more GPS satellites in the coming years. SpaceX got five of the six GPS 3 launches awarded over the past four years. ULA in 2019 launched a GPS satellite on the final flight of the Delta 4 Medium rocket before it retired the vehicle.

Lauderdale said Phase 2 launch awards don’t set reusability limits. “We have to continue to look beyond two or three, he said. “Phase 2 doesn’t specify a count.” There are no restrictions on reused payload fairings either, he said.  

The next GPS contract up for award is the seventh GPS 3 satellite (SV-07), one of five missions funded in the Space Force’s $1.4 billion budget request for national security launch services for fiscal year 2022, a Space and Missile Systems Center spokesman confirmed. 

The other three — GPS 3 SV-08, SV-09 and SV-10 — “are currently being tracked as future launch service requirements, the spokesman said.

GPS 3 satellites are made by Lockheed Martin. The company in 2008 got a contract to develop and produce 10 satellites, four of which are in orbit. The last four that have not been awarded launches yet will be completed long before they’re expected to fly to orbit. Because of the lag time between delivery of the satellites and their projected launches, these last four will be kept in storage at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Colorado.

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SpaceX gets $29 million Space Force contract for surveillance of non-military launches

WASHINGTON — SpaceX was awarded a $29.6 million contract under the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 contract that allows the U.S. Space Force to monitor and study data from the company’s commercial and civil space missions.

The one-year contract “provides early integration studies and fleet surveillance for non-national security space missions,” said the Space Force contract announcement Nov. 9.

Fleet surveillance includes access to proprietary “tools, systems, processes and launch site activities developed by the launch service provider for non-national security space missions,” said the Space Force. 

The contract gives the Space Force visibility into the company’s operations during an active launch period as SpaceX deploys its Starlink broadband internet constellation with its fleet of Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX also is preparing to launch a commercial crew NASA mission to fly four astronauts to the International Space Station.

Starting next year, the Space Force for the first time will allow SpaceX to use previously flown Falcon 9 boosters to launch military GPS satellites. 

SpaceX and United Launch Alliance are the two providers selected for Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch procurement. 

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SpaceX explains why the U.S. Space Force is paying $316 million for a single launch

WASHINGTON — When the U.S. Air Force announced Aug. 7 that SpaceX received a $316 million contract to launch a National Reconnaissance Office satellite in fiscal year 2022, many were surprised by the large price tag.

SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell on Nov. 9 explained that the contract pays for launch services but also covers expenses for infrastructure and other items required for national security launches. 

“The launch was not that expensive,” Shotwell said during a panel discussion at the virtual World Satellite Business Week conference hosted by Euroconsult.

The $316 million contract was the first awarded to SpaceX under the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 launch service procurement. The other provider selected in this program, United Launch Alliance, was awarded $337 million to launch two missions comparable to the one awarded to SpaceX. 

This raised eyebrows because SpaceX’s previous national security launch bids were priced much lower than ULA’s. A recent Falcon Heavy launch contract SpaceX won from NASA, for example, was $117 million. In the first Phase 2 award, ULA is launching two missions almost for the price of one SpaceX mission. 

But Shotwell insisted the company’s launch prices are not going up. SpaceX is however charging the government for the cost of an extended payload fairing, upgrades to the company’s West Coast launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force in California, and a vertical integration facility required for NRO missions. 

The price “reflects mostly the infrastructure,” Shotwell said. 

Shotwell noted that the Aug. 7 contract does not completely cover all infrastructure expenses and other costs will be included in future Phase 2 bids.  

“This one was front loaded because the Space Force wanted this capability deployed quickly,” said Shotwell.

Speaking during the WSBW panel, ULA CEO Tory Bruno said the Phase 2 awards are proof of “how price competitive we were.” He said Phase 2 launch bids are fixed-price and do not include development costs. 

But SpaceX added development costs into its bid, said Shotwell, because the company never received funding for infrastructure and development that its competitors got. The Air Force in 2018 awarded ULA and other launch companies competing for Phase 2 contracts billions of dollars for the development of vehicles and for infrastructure. SpaceX did not win a Launch Service Agreement (LSA) development contract and sued the Air Force in response. A California judge dismissed the lawsuit last month.

ULA received a $967 million LSA contract. Shotwell said that has to be included in the equation “to get a complete look at what the Space Force is investing in the launch industry in the United States.”

Those LSA awards were “to help get the U.S. launch providers to be competitive for Phase 2,” Shotwell said. “We did not win that, so all the money that we needed to spend we needed to put into our Phase 2 award. And we were happy that we were still competitive.”

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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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Tesla and Space Force make comedy gold together in new show

There are so many technology arenas that Elon Musk plays a major role in that mashup potentials are everywhere, especially in pop culture. Space Force, a new Netflix original comedy series poking fun at the United States’ newest military branch, is one of the latest places where the innovative CEO can find his companies being referenced. Surprisingly, it’s not a direct SpaceX plug, but rather the payload the rocket launch provider put into orbit during one of its most famous missions to date: Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster.

In Episode 2 of Space Force, titled “Save Epsilon 6,” a Russian adversary damaged the department’s recently launched satellite. While looking for nearby orbital objects that could provide assistance, “a Tesla” is mentioned along with a subsequent graphic displaying an animated cutout of the original Roadster’s shape. Sadly, Starman didn’t make the silhouette. Also of note was the inaccuracy of the Roadster’s position. According to WhereIsRoaster.com, the electric vehicle is currently some 113 million miles from Earth in orbit around the Sun.

Curiously, and flirting with gossip, another nearby satellite in the image is named “X-12” which, as close followers of Elon Musk would know, is similar to his newborn son’s name, X Æ A-12 (changed to X Æ A-Xii for legal reasons it seems). Admittedly, this reference would be a bit of a stretch, even if it were on purpose. However, being that A-12 was the designation of the SR-71 super spy plane’s predecessor (and the baby’s namesake according to momma Grimes) and NASA’s secret shuttle’s designation is X37, the writers’ naming may not have been so random and semi-coincidental after all. (It probably was.)

(Credit: Netflix)

Musk’s inspiration also seems to have made its way into Episode 3 of Space Force, titled “Mark and Mallory Go to Washington,” wherein the two main characters are called to testify for a congressional committee. During a series of questions regarding the department’s budget request, one member inspires a Musk-like response from General Naird (played by Steve Carrell):

“General Naird, your entire attitude seems to be, “Give us money, and don’t look while we militarize space… Your scientist is nodding,” the member challenges.

“It is a condition…drinking bird syndrome,” Naird first replies, then pauses before making his actual response. “Look, space is hard.”

“Space is hard?” the member retorts. “If you haven’t settled on a motto yet, may I suggest that become the new Space Force motto?”

Quite honestly, it’s not a bad suggestion given the number of times the phrase is uttered by those in the industry. The commander of the real US Space Force has actually repeated this same sentiment on a few occasions, once in reference to an Iranian boast about its satellite imaging capabilities that were later revealed to be a tumbling webcam.

Speaking of the existing Space Force, which Musk has expressed his approval of as a precursor to a Star Trek-style Starfleet, its plans look to be moving along well. Since its establishment on December 20, 2019, with the signing of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the Force has put together its headquarters and begun recruiting from current US Air Force personnel and US Air Force Academy graduates. During May, some 8,000 airmen volunteered to switch their service, and 86 graduates from this year’s Academy class were commissioned into the new branch.

The Space Force has also formalized its customer-provider relationship with SpaceX during the recent GPS III (Vehicle 3) satellite launch aboard a Falcon 9, representing the branch’s third launch mission overall since its establishment. Now that the Air Force Space Command has been redesignated as the US Space Force, the service’s relationship with SpaceX will continue on as launch support with the 45th Space Wing in Florida. The Wing’s first support mission under the Space Force designation was also a SpaceX launch, specifically with a payload of Starlink satellites.

With Space Force already having so many ties to Musk and company, it wouldn’t be surprising to see many more SpaceX-linked references in Season 2 of Netflix’s show.

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