Space Force Speeds Up Launch Times to Respond to Threats
Firefly Aerospace photo
At 7:28 pm Pacific Time on Sept. 14, a Firefly Aerospace Alpha launch vehicle bearing a Millennium Space Systems-built satellite lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. While this was one of many launches at the base this year, this mission, known as Victus Nox, had just made history.
Victus Nox — Latin for “conquer the night” — lifted off 27 hours after the receipt of launch orders, shattering the previous responsive space launch record of 21 days.
“This is going to be one of those things that I think makes it in the history books when we look back on what the Space Force added” by having a “service-level focus on producing tactically responsive space,” Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman said. “How fast can we respond with a launch and an on-orbit capability?
“I’m so proud of [Victus Nox] because it’s one thing to kind of walk through that timeline,” to think through the airlift needed, the infrastructure and telemetry of the launch facility, the safety checks, the payload integration, “these are massive checklists that have to be run,” he said at a Center for a New American Security event in October. “And for those that haven’t been in the launch business, I don’t think you can fully appreciate all of the work that goes into that, and on that timeline, amazing accomplishment.”
Victus Nox is part of the Space Force’s Tactically Responsive Space program, the goal of which is to ensure the United States can rapidly respond to on-orbit threats. An example of where the capability would have been useful took place in 2019, when a Russian satellite “cozied right up to an important” U.S. satellite, said Lt. Col. Justin Beltz, materiel leader and chief of Space Systems Command’s Small Launch and Targets division.
“The combatant commanders wanted options. What can we do to respond to this scenario? And the playbook was very limited, and so, those conversations have directly prompted our ability to do this kind of mission,” Beltz said during a teleconference following the Victus Nox launch.
“I am sure that over years and decades, this kind of mission will play out in a way that nobody is predicting today. But the important thing is that we’re addressing the clear threat and making sure that the United States can respond,” he added.
A suitable response time is within 24 hours, said Space Systems Command Commander Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein.
“Tactically responsive space isn’t about launch. It’s about getting a capability to the combatant commanders in a time-relevant fashion, and I’m going to argue time-relevant means within 24 hours,” Guetlein said at the Space Symposium in April. “How do I get them a space capability within 24 hours?”
Victus Nox’s goal, once in orbit, was to initialize the space vehicle and begin operations in less than 48 hours. Jason Kim, CEO of Millennium Space Systems, said the satellite was “mission ready” within 37 hours.
“That’s something that usually takes weeks, maybe sometimes months, but the team did it in 37 hours,” Kim said during the post-launch teleconference. “And now the spacecraft is [in] a good state and is performing its mission.”
The journey to get the satellite on orbit and operational began less than a year prior to the Victus Nox launch. Firefly Aerospace and Millennium Space Systems announced in October 2022 that they had been selected to provide launch services and the satellite, respectively, for the mission.
For the industry partners, Victus Nox “demanded that we show extreme grit and rigor as we just rethought the timeline of what launch operations needed to be — things that typically require months, years or hours, and shorten all of them,” Firefly CEO Bill Weber said. “I think the secret to the success of this team was … our combined ability with Millennium to just challenge conventions and the way things have always been done — and then rehearse that over and over and over.”
The new way of thinking and executing was fine-tuned. “And when it came time for launch day, we were ready,” he added.
Lt. Col. MacKenzie Birchenough, materiel leader of Space Systems Command’s Space Safari program office, said the Space Force “intentionally put very aggressive timelines on each phase of this mission,” breaking Victus Nox up into an activation phase, a launch phase and an on-orbit phase, and setting specific timeline objectives for each one.
On Aug. 30, Firefly and Millennium entered a “hot standby” phase awaiting notification from the Space Force to proceed “at an intentionally unknown time,” a Millennium press release stated. Once activated, the space vehicle was transported 165 miles from Millennium’s facility in El Segundo, California, to Vandenberg, where it was tested, fueled and mated to the launch adapter in just under 58 hours, significantly faster than the typical timeline of weeks or months, a Space Systems Command release said.
And when the launch order came, the team was ready for that, too.
“I think by separating it out, knowing exactly what had to be done and being able to rehearse each one of those different phases, we were able to cut those timelines down,” Birchenough said during the teleconference. “If you would have asked me six months ago, I probably wouldn’t have been super optimistic that we were going to actually hit all of those objectives, because I know that what we were doing was far surpassing anything that had been done in the past.”
However, being able to conduct mission dress rehearsals and training and get “all the details down is what allowed us to move fast and not only to meet those objective timelines, but really to exceed them and cut the times down, I think, further than what any of us even here in the room expected,” she said.
Weber and Kim noted that digital tools for simulation and engineering were key to the mission’s speed.
For launch, “you can’t do a wet dress [rehearsal] every single day of the week or several weeks in a row,” Weber said. “You just put the equipment — both the ground infrastructure and the launch vehicle — through paces that it’s not designed to meet in order to perform its mission.”
Firefly conducted a lot of digital simulations leading up to the launch, which he said was crucial for meeting the 24-hour window.
Kim also said digital tools were vital as they helped Millennium get the satellite ready. “Engineering, designs and manufacturing, as well as assembly, test and launch operations, are more streamlined. So, that’s where we’re seeing a lot of advancements to help us speed up the whole process.”
However, if the Space Force is responding to an actual on-orbit threat, it won’t always have the time to rehearse launch procedures over and over, Beltz noted.
“We got this success on Victus Nox by balancing the tension between speed and flexibility,” he said. The Space Force gave Firefly seven “pre-canned” launch options, and “we couldn’t just call them and say, ‘Hey, here’s a brand new mission you’ve never seen.’ There was a lot of prep work to create these seven possibilities.
“Where we need to go is where we have that same speed, if not greater, but we also have the flexibility to deal with almost unlimited” scenarios, he continued. “What if all of a sudden we have a mid-inclination mission, and we need to go someplace that we weren’t planning? There are implications … for both industry to prepare their systems,” as well as challenges on the government side, he noted.
The Federal Aviation Administration was a “tremendous” help ensuring the airspace was clear for Victus Nox, “but we had a pretty good idea of where we were going, so it was constrained,” Beltz said. “So as we head towards the future, we need to kind of tease apart that tension between speed and flexibility and get to the point where we’re hitting both in full.”
Birchenough said Victus Nox “is just one approach, or one way that the Space Force is getting after how we would rapidly respond to on-orbit threats or on-orbit needs.” Other approaches could include buying a commercial capability that is already in space, or prepositioning Space Force assets “on orbit ready to be used at the time of need and taking the launch piece out of it.”
“So, when you think about all three of those different approaches, you can really expand the types of missions that we can do, the type of capabilities that we can augment,” she said. “If you think about it that way, there is no limit [to] what we can really do and the different ways that we have to respond,” rapidly deploying systems for missions ranging from space domain awareness to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to tactical communications.
Following the success of Victus Nox, the question now becomes how to take full advantage of tactically responsive space. The Space Force’s goal is to have an enduring capability by 2026, Birchenough said.
“We intend to roll all of the lessons learned from Victus Nox into our next demonstration” — a collaborative mission between the Space Force and the Defense Innovation Unit called Victus Haze — “and then of course into future operational missions as well,” she said.
Less than a week after the Victus Nox launch, Space Systems Command’s Assured Access to Space office announced a $15 million contract award to ABL Space Systems “to develop a launch mission design that incorporates planning for numerous satellites to multiple orbits from a variety of locations and conduct a proof-of-concept responsive launch,” a command release stated.
And the Pentagon is recognizing the need to invest in tactically responsive space, Birchenough said. Previously, the program “had really been living on” congressional add-on funding, but the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2024 budget request includes specific funding for tactically responsive space, “which is obviously the main thing that you need to make it an official program,” she said.
Maj. Jason Altenhofen, Space Safari’s deputy branch chief, said the Space Force has requested $30 million for the Tactically Responsive Space program in fiscal year 2024, and will seek another $30 million for fiscal year 2025.
“I think we fully recognize that” level of funding is “not going to scale to a fully operational solution,” Altenhofen said during the teleconference.
Demonstrations like Victus Nox “are really about proving capability, proving that we can do it, and then we’re working through the budget process to figure out what that right size of funding is … to make a truly operational, repeatable capability for the future.”
Saltzman said: “Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier — big deal. It’s like one airplane, what are you going to do with it? It opens the door, because it shows the capability, it shows what you can do, it shows how you do it. Now you start talking about how do you build a unit that can do this on a repeatable basis? How do you do the training? How do you put contract vehicles in place … how do you put all that together so it’s operationalized, not just a demonstration of the capability?
“That’s what we’re going to get to next, and that gets you to maybe a force that you could start talking about as reconstitutable because you have those capacities in place,” he said.