JUST IN: Pentagon Seeking Input from Industry on Future of Space Launch

By Mandy Mayfield
Launch of a Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zoe Thacke

The Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center recently released a request for information to industry seeking input to shape the future of the military's space launch enterprise, an official said Nov. 19.

The RFI follows two major contracts — which were awarded in August in partnership with the National Reconnaissance Office — for the National Security Space Launch service, also known as the NSSL, to United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.

The awards give the center a core strategic capability, said Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of SMC's launch enterprise during a virtual event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“Now we have the opportunity to step back and assess and work with our stakeholders to established what the future of NSSL should be,” he said. “Last week we released a request for information to industry along these lines. If you look at it you'll see we're really interested in where innovative industry is seeing launch going in the future [and] what they're doing to get to that future.”

The "Request for Information to Support National Security Space Launch Program Planning" document — which was released Nov. 10 — is seeking information on a number of issues including: space access, mobility and logistics; innovative acquisition strategies; strategic process improvements; digital engineering and security. Response due dates are broken up into three rounds with round 1, round 2 and round 3 due Nov. 24, Dec. 9 and Jan. 15, respectively, according to the document.

“It is time to build that partnership with industry and with our stakeholders and ... use this launch industry that's the envy of the world to enable our future launch capabilities,” Bongiovi said. “What we're really trying to do with that RFI is [say]: ‘Here are the things we're thinking about. What are you thinking about?' And try to figure out how we start getting onto roadways that might be parallel, or the same broad pathway that we can leverage.”

The RFI poses questions about launches beyond geosynchronous orbit into cislunar space. When asked whether the service is considering near-term launches into that region, Bongiovi responded: “I don't think we're at the position to know both what the demand is, but also ... where industry is going to be and what's the viable way even to consider other orbits if that is what we are asked to do.”

Meanwhile, the recent NSSL contracts are for launch service orders starting in fiscal year 2020 through 2024.

“We will procure about 60 percent of our launches from United Launch Alliance and 40 percent from Space X for the 2020 to 2024 procurement years,” he said. “That means a launch from about 2022 until 2026 or 2027.”

The effort is part of the goal to move the United States away from its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engine, which is used on Atlas V rockets. Congress mandated that the government cease using the Russian-made RD-180 by 2022.

Moving forward with the contract, SMC is focused on assigning missions to SpaceX and ULA, and performing early integration studies, he noted.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the service has launched assets into space six times, according to Bongiovi. The more notable launches include the GPS Block III satellite and the Space Force's first small launch with NROL-129.


Topics: Space

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