A December study produced by Air University suggests the Air Force further use the Pentagon’s other transaction authority (OTA) to partner with domestic commercial firms pursuing quick and rapid launch capabilities.

The study, “Fast Space: Leveraging Ultra Low-Cost Access for 21st Century Space Challenges,” said the Air Force should assemble a team to pursue the authority to proceed with a competition for jointly-funded (cost-shared) prototype OTAs. OTAs are a flexible business tool not governed by federal acquisition requirements (FAR) to ensure smarter, more effective acquisition of prototypes for the Pentagon. The full and open competition will seek multiple United States-based commercial partners to develop and demonstrate their proposed space systems in collaboration with Air Force financial assistances and broader federal government technical resources, according to the study.

The premise of the study is that the U.S. is dependent on space for power projection, yet its current space architecture grows increasingly vulnerable as other nations are developing methods to use space in ways to increase this vulnerability. The study argues the Fast Space concept can counter this with an ecosystem of concepts, capabilities and industrial partnerships that makes speed the defining attribute of U.S. advantage in space.

SpaceX lands its Falcon 9 on its floating water barge after its April 8 launch. Photo: SpaceX.
SpaceX lands its Falcon 9 on its floating water barge after its April 8 launch. Photo: SpaceX.

On the supply side, Fast Space envisions sortie-on-demand launch capability made possible through economically viable business cases, high launch rates, sustainably lower costs, rapid-turnaround and higher reliability from emerging approaches the space industry is experimenting with. On the demand side, Fast Space enables users at all levels of conflict, from tactical to strategic, to harvest new advantages in and through space. These advantages include persistent command and control (C2), ubiquitous communications, on-demand intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and new axes for kinetic effects.

Charles Miller, the study’s principal investigator and president of NexGen Space LLC, told Defense Daily April 18, that the ultra low cost access to space (ULCATS) concept is based on aircraft-like operability in space with launch: high flight rates that lead to much lower launch costs and frequent and rapid response. The idea is that as rockets fly more often, and potentially become reusable, they will drive down flight costs. Miller said the Air Force currently bases its national security space paradigm on extremely expensive and infrequent launch. This is part of the expendable launch concept that uses a rocket once.

Miller compares the advent of ULCATS with how the U.S. invented flight back in the early 1900s. He asserts that though flight was invented in the U.S., the rest of the world took advantage of flight for military use, forcing the U.S. to play catch-up for decades.

“The question is not are we going to get ultra low cost access to launch,” Miller said. “It’s very clear it’s coming now. It’s how soon and who are going to be the leaders…I think it’s critical for leadership to be preparing for a world with ULCATS and making sure the U.S. is the leader.”

Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Schilling, part of the study’s primary assessment team and chief of the Commander’s Action Group at Air University, told Defense Daily April 18 that the study originated with a question as to how the Air Force could take advantage if launch costs were lowered by a factor of 10. Schilling said as the study progressed, a groundswell of opportunity developed based on space industry events like the excitement from the public battle between Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and Space Exploration Technology Corp.’s (SpaceX) Elon Musk and the reusable rockets being developed by their companies.

The study recommends the Air Force create a purpose-built organization to manage partnerships with commercial ULCATS efforts. The study suggests this office, nominally called the NewSpace Development Office, utilize innovative acquisition processes and methods. The study hopes this new office will require a “fail-fast, fail-forward” culture as opposed to operationally-focused cultures where failure is not an option.

The study also recommends the Air Force shape the interagency environment to ease regulatory burdens and lower barriers to entry. The study suggests the Air Force secretary, who also serves as the principal Defense Department Space Advisor, take an active stance in maturing the policy and regulatory environment outside the Pentagon that can maximize the benefits high launch rate, rapid turnaround reusable launch vehicles and associated on-orbit capabilities.

The study, finally, recommends integrating consideration of high launch rate rapid-turnaround approaches into the joint requirements and acquisition process.