A top Air Force official said industry partners will see an increasing role as a “powerful arm of our national security and economic viability” in space over the next year as the service looks to expand commercial launches and grow its new experimental space technology consortium,

Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, told attendees at a Friday Mitchell Institute event the Air Force is specifically looking provide “effective, lower cost, reliable, rapid support” for commercial launch industry this year after completing 19 commercial launches in 2018.

Official portrait – Lt. Gen. David Thompson taken in the Air Force portrait studio, April 13, 2018, Pentagon. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne A. Clark)

“I don’t want to under-emphasize the value of those 19 commercial launches, because a robust launch activity, DoD, civil and commercial, is an important national security asset for the nation,” Thompson said. “We’re going to increasingly leverage and expect the commercial market to provide the capabilities we need for routine access to space.”

Over the last year, the Air Force has awarded contracts for launch services to United Launch Alliance, a Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT] conglomerate, SpaceX, Orbital ATK, now Northrop Grumman [NG] Innovation Systems, and Aerojet Rocketdyne [AJRD] (Defense Daily, Oct. 2018).

Thompson told reporters following the event the Air Force is working with direction from senior Pentagon leadership to continue building capacity to procure space launch and support services from non-traditional companies.

“There’s really a burgeoning commercial market. It’s easy to see on the launch side, but when you look at the potential for some of the commercial constellations in the future some of them are supposed to be very large by very large companies, some of them are medium and smaller companies with innovative ideas and technologies,” Thompson said.

Officials are looking to the new National Security Space Launch Program, Space Enterprise Consortium and Commercial Integration Cell to provide a wider range of opportunities for industry to develop next-generation space capabilities in partnership with the service in 2019, according to Thompson.

Thompson said as the Air Force transitions from the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program to the new National Security Space Launch Program new opportunities will open for partners who haven’t previously worked with the Air Force.

“We’ve got some companies with some great ideas who’ve advanced them to some level, who are looking to advance them in the future,” Thompson said.

The new Space Enterprise Consortium based in Colorado will also look to use new contract vehicles and Other Transaction Authorities to fund research and development on emerging satellite and space sensor technology, with the goal of rapidly prototyping with small and medium-sized companies.

Air Force officials are also looking to expand the Commercial Integration Cell program, started two years ago, which allows satellite operators from industry to manage constellations at the Joint Space Operations Center.

“It’s a direct conduit and link to commercial space activity, whether it’s satellite communications, remote sensing, space situational awareness and other things, to ensure we can effectively integrate and understand and operate together with those commercial industries and industry partners,” Thompson said. “That will likely expand in the near term.”