To secure America's space launch capabilities, we must stay the course

To secure America's space launch capabilities, we must stay the course
© NASA

As the Department of Defense (DOD) takes steps to assure America’ access to space, will the Air Force be able to execute its new launch program?

Over the past two decades, the DOD has made fundamental changes in how it launches its critical national security satellites, evolving from direct procurement of rockets to purchasing launch services through the private sector.  America’s access to space is more reliable, resilient and cheaper for it.

Throughout this period, the Air Force, working with the aerospace industry, has successfully managed to overcome many complex challenges. Those hurdles include developing the Atlas V and Delta IV launch systems, recovering from an unprecedented series of launch failures in the late 1990s, as well as introducing and certifying a variety of new launch service providers.

Throughout the evolution of the DOD’s space program, mission assurance and assured access to space for critical national security payloads has been the top priority.  The nation has depended on the Air Force to get the job done right and to keep the United States competitive in space. The results speak for themselves — no defense space launch failure in nearly 20 years. Not only has their process delivered America’s critical military space capabilities, but it has also prevented the waste of billions of dollars in failure recovery and lost satellites.

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Now, however, the DOD space launch program is at an inflection point. The transition to the new Air Force Launch Services Agreement (LSA) program, which is investing in development of new U.S.-made rockets, is intended to create a competitive field to ensure the United States’ continued access to space while leveraging an expanding set of commercial products, services and practices. The timetable for implementing the LSA is driven by the need to end the DOD’s dependence on Russian built rocket engines by 2022. However, the path forward is filled with challenges and obstacles.

Designing, building and demonstrating reliable launch vehicles are among the most complex endeavors in the aerospace industry. Capital investments are high, design margins are thin, production rates are low, supply chains are fragile, and failures are costly. The uncertainties in the commercial space launch market make it a risky business and invariably launch providers look to the U.S. Government for investment and market assurance.

Further complicating the launch equation, the DOD program must operate cooperatively with other civil, commercial and international space launch programs, suppliers and customers. The LSA is structured to invest in multiple potential launch solutions and companies to create an open and level competitive landscape. From that competition, the Air Force will select the two leading launch providers to deliver American next generation national security space launch systems.

The stakes are high, and the competition for LSA contracts is fierce. Individual companies will no doubt work to improve their position in the selection process, either directly with the Air Force and DOD, by legal challenges or through the Congress by advocating for funding changes or delays to the program. As the Air Force draws near to making its final selection, that appears to be what is happening.

It is time to move forward. The nation must cut its dependence on Russian-built rocket engines. The Air Force’s LSA program is a sound and even-handed way to do just that. By evaluating very different launch solutions and making an informed, objective choice of providers, the Air Force will continue its commitment to foster and leverage commercial launch service providers, both traditional and new, innovative ones. 

At the end of the day, the overarching imperative is to have assured access to space for critical national security payloads through two proven, highly reliable launch providers for the years ahead. The Air Force’s LSA program is on the right track and should continue to be supported by the administration, Congress and the American people. For the sake of America’s national security, the Launch Service Agreement program must stay the course. 

Michael Hamel is a retired lt. general of the United States Air Force and former commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center.