Have you ever noticed how “hypeful” many space companies tend to be? If so, you might find some ways to deal with it in an article I wrote for Astralytical about space companies and their tendency for hype. Did you know there’s a tool to determine a technology’s maturity from the hype? You might enjoy: “Space Startups and Hype: Finding Facts in the Flash.”
The U.S. Space Force (USSF) announced its new National Security Space Launch (NSSL) plans in the form of a draft request for proposal posted in mid-February 2023. From the draft’s overview:
The United States Space Force (USSF) Space Systems Command, Assured Access to Space’s (SSC/AA) Operational Imperative is to deliver national security space capability to the warfighter to deter/defeat the pacing challenge. The NSSL Phase 3 approach to meet this Operational Imperative is to provide assured access to space to the integrated space architecture at affordable prices…
Pacing in the Lanes
An interesting term is used: “the pacing challenge.” That word sequence has been thrown around for a few years as a pseudonym for China. In the years prior, some went so far as to believe China had been a “pacing threat,” which was considered more serious than a pacing challenge. If China were at the pacing threat level, it could decently challenge the U.S. militarily, economically, politically, and technologically. China can cause regional problems at a pacing challenge level, impacting neighboring nations, their security, and stability. It can cause trouble globally as well.
My translation attempt: the SSC/AA is buying space capabilities for U.S. troops that will deter or defeat China. In the case of NSSL, the SSC/AA is moving on to Phase 3, using contracts to incentivize launch companies to provide launch capability to the Department of Defense. Considering the RFP is from the Department of Defense (DoD) generally and about NSSL specifically, it’s a little surprising to see the use of two words: “affordable prices.” Cynical thinking leans toward affordability possessing a different meaning in the DoD’s world–different from how a taxpayer might view it.
Within the draft RFP are two “lanes.” Starting in 2025, the first (Phase 3 Lane 1) will award five-year indefinite-delivery indefinite quantity contracts, with an option for five additional years. Lane 1 allows multiple new launch companies to provide non-NSSL-certified rockets for more straightforward missions. There appear to be no limits to the number of competitors that could win a Lane 1 contract.
Lane 2 is similar to the current NSSL contracts shared between SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) in Phase 2. Two five-year contracts would be awarded to companies with NSSL-certified rockets starting in 2025. The two companies would launch the more risk-averse missions (intelligence and other special DoD missions) using high-priced satellites.
Lane 1: Smallsat Launch–Necessity or Reaction?
The RFP doesn’t outright designate Lane 1 for “smallsat-only” launch vehicles nor suggests any upmass range limits. Perhaps the lack of both means that a vehicle like Starship could use Lane 1 as a path to become certified for NSSL. However, there are indications from some managers in the USSF that it is for smallsat rockets.
“Lane 1 really stems from a warfighter need as the architecture is transitioning from single high-value assets to more proliferated constellations,” he said. “We think that Lane 1 provides resiliency through diversity of systems.”
That sentiment was echoed in SpaceNews’ description of Lane 1:
When bids come in for Lane 1, the NSSL program will work with SDA or other customers launching small satellites to low Earth orbit and assess the risk of flying on a newly developed vehicle.
Based on the smallsat launcher activity in China, Phase 3’s Lane 1 might make sense for those tracking launches and placing importance on those activities alone. It will probably help foster U.S. smallsat launch companies. If Lane 1 does that, then the U.S. companies might match the smallsat launches conducted from China. But not with Lane 1’s anticipated 30 launches over ten years. An average of three DoD-contracted smallsat launches a year is not much and certainly won’t deter or defeat the pacing challenge. Believing otherwise is putting one’s head in the sand. But maybe attempting to match smallsat launch activity in China is wrong. China launches more often because it must.
That need places a heavier emphasis on smallsat launch activity in China. U.S. smallsat rockets deploy a minimal number of smallsats annually. And yet, the U.S. launch industry managed to deploy many more smallsats than what those rockets and the rest of the world’s launch industry (including China’s) deployed in 2022. That recent development is because the U.S. space launch industry doesn’t require smallsat rockets to launch smallsats, despite government attempts. The DoD has spent decades attempting to somehow develop and build smallsat rockets with programs such as Operationally Responsive Space (with mixed results). Perhaps it should take its cue from commercial smallsat operators and the ride of choice for their satellites.
The U.S. has something much more capable than smallsat launchers to deploy smallsats: SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Over the past few years, that rocket has deployed hundreds of smallsats (not counting its own Starlink satellites). Its latest dedicated rideshare mission in January 2023 deployed 114 smallsats. The major national security problem is that using the Falcon 9 for DoD smallsat missions only emphasizes the DoD’s reliance on SpaceX. But it’s unclear that Lane 1 will develop the redundancy the DoD desires for smallsat launchers–especially when considering the paltry number of launches it plans to dispense throughout the program.
However, Lane 1 could work for U.S. smallsat launch companies as it’s one of the more active parts of the U.S. launch sector. Firefly, Rocket Lab, and Virgin Orbit have successfully launched rockets to orbit, and a few others seem close to bringing smallsat launch systems online. Although, in contrast, these companies’ payload cost per kilogram is very high, at least for commercial customers, the military views smallsat rockets as disposable bargains–especially if they become reliable. The hope would be that the smallsat launch companies don’t become reliant on the NSSL program for their profits.
Lane 2: Business as Usual
Meanwhile, Lane 2 of Phase 3 almost appears to be a sure thing for SpaceX and ULA. That conjecture is based on another DoD manager’s observation of potential launch cost savings.
For the most powerful rockets, Pentecost said SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and ULA’s Vulcan rockets “are about half the cost” of what the prior decade’s Delta IV Heavy rockets cost, savings of “almost 50%” for the military to put “the biggest satellites into space.”
That statement displays confidence in the future of U.S. rocket launch providers that is 50% well-founded. As of the beginning of March 2023, one company with NSSL-certified operational rockets fit the DoD’s criteria for Phase 3 Lane 2: SpaceX. Based on the company’s dominance and NSSL’s award criteria, SpaceX would win the larger of the two contracts, a reverse from Phase 2. However, since Phase 3’s Lane 2 is a copy of Phase 2, does it do anything to deter/defeat the pacing challenge? Did Phase 2 accomplish that?
For Lane 2, ULA’s Vulcan looks good on paper but will not be near as flight-proven as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. Despite Pentecost’s mention of both launch vehicles in the same sentence, the Vulcan doesn’t have the same upmass capability as the Falcon Heavy. It has an advertised LEO capability of slightly over 27,000 kg (vs. the Falcon Heavy’s nearly 64,000 kg). ULA has yet to test-launch the referenced Vulcan rocket, with its latest announcement pointing towards the launch sometime in May 2023. If the test doesn’t succeed, then the NSSL certification of the Vulcan will be delayed. There is also the unverified rumor of ULA potentially being put up for sale. If that is true, Vulcan’s future is far from certain.
Based on ULA’s projected launch month, Vulcan appears further along than New Glenn (Blue Origin’s launch vehicle). However, if neither Vulcan nor New Glenn shows up in the competition for Lane 2, that leaves the DoD with a situation it wanted to avoid–another launch monopoly.
Theoretically, avoiding a launch monopoly is one of the DoD’s reasons for concocting overly complicated programs such as EELV and NSSL. But those programs pretend/hope the competition will somehow step up, which is unlikely without competition. Lane 2 won’t fix that awkward possibility—it’s based on the assumption there are at least two competitors. It’s not like NASA’s Commercial Cargo/Crew programs, which had competitors build rockets for its needs. There’s a chance that the DoD once again must rely on a single company for its launches. When that happened in the past, ULA’s launches got more expensive over time (page 11). It became so expensive that the DoD viewed the EELV program’s spending as “unsustainable.”
Despite these challenges, the DoD will implement NSSL’s Phase 3, which seems like a half-hearted effort. It’s returning to form, again encouraging smallsat launch companies to build more small rockets for its satellites. However, the smallsat industry it’s attempting to grow will starve if those rocket launch companies try to survive on DoD launches alone. It also appears that, in some ways, the DoD is diminishing its capability by not recognizing the other ways to launch smallsats. Worse, the other half of its program seems to embrace business as usual, which didn’t deter China in the past.
The program doesn’t even acknowledge the possibility of Starship, which seems nearsighted for a ten-year program already relying on hope for half of its heavy launch missions.