Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond said on Dec. 17 that he wants the U.S. Space Force to move to all autonomous launch operations by 2025.
“If you look at where the industry is headed with autonomous launches and reusability, those are going to be huge national advantages that we need to be able to capitalize on,” Raymond told a TechCrunch virtual forum on space. “Today, SpaceX, every vehicle they launch is autonomous, including the launches of NASA astronauts, and their vehicles, we’ve all seen the first stages come back to land. I think you’re going to see all of the launch industry go to autonomous launch operations.”
“In fact, I’ve written a policy letter that’s mandating it by 2025,” he said. “It completely rewrites the rulebook on how we do range operations–reduces the footprint we have, the infrastructure we have, reduces the amount of bodies that have to come to work to support a launch, allows us to launch more cheaply, allows us to have greater transaction rates so we can launch more [and] turn the range around a lot quicker, and it’s reducing launch costs.”
Last month, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket propelled the Crew Dragon spacecraft with four NASA astronauts into space for a science mission aboard the International Space Station in what NASA said was the first, successful NASA-certified crewed, commercial spacecraft launch.
SpaceX has gained significant Pentagon traction in the last two years.
In November, a Falcon 9 launched a GPS III satellite for the third time since December, 2018 (Defense Daily, Nov. 5). In August, the Space Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), in partnership with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), awarded United Launch Alliance (ULA), composed of Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA], a $337 million contract for two classified mission launches and SpaceX a $316 million contract for one classified mission launch under Phase 2 of the launch service procurement (LSP) National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program for the Space Force (Defense Daily, Aug. 7).
SpaceX has also ventured beyond launch to providing DoD with possible communications and missile defense capabilities. In October, the Space Development Agency (SDA) awarded SpaceX a $149 million contract for the development of four space vehicles for the Wide Field of View (WFOV) program to help in the warning and tracking of advanced missile threats, including hypersonic missiles (Defense Daily, Oct. 5).
In a separate address to the TechCrunch space forum on Dec. 17, U.S. Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper outlined his space technology wish list, including a co-pilot for space systems, like the artificial intelligence (AI) system that the U-2 reconnaissance plane demonstrated on Dec. 15 (Defense Daily, Dec. 16).
“I need the same thing for Space Force,” Roper said. “I need a space co-pilot that can crunch the numbers of a very physically driven warfighting domain. Kepler’s Laws determine most of what happened in space. I think that having that sidekick, that assistant, like R2D2 in an X-Wing, is something that we need in space.”
“We are hugely enthused about new space propulsion,” he said. “We want to see options to move things around. If you’re going to fight a war in space, maneuverability of satellites is going to be more important for the military than it likely will be for commercial missions anytime soon, and I think space refueling and replenishment are something that the military can help on–like refueling sats in space changing out payload in space. I could see that being something that we could certify, that a technology is safe to do that, and allowing it to happen on mil sats and then using that to build confidence in commercial markets.
“That’s where we are right now on other space tech fronts, like space launch, working with companies like SpaceX on reusable boosters,” Roper said. “SpaceX and [founder] Elon [Musk] have been pushing that for many years, also working with us on government contracts. We began by working on experimental satellites, and we’ve now committed to put up a GPS [III] satellite using a booster that’s going to be reused. What we hope will happen is that if we are so confident in the technology that we’ll put a multi-billion dollar GPS [III] satellite on top of that stack and be confident it makes it into orbit, we hope that that will encourage other commercial customers to be confident as well–just an example of how the military can be an early product market fit that ends up ultimately helping commercialization.”