Efforts to achieve low-cost, fast access to space for the U.S. military stand to benefit from an increasingly favorable financial, political and technological climate, Air Force and industry experts said May 8.

The current willingness of billionaires, such as Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk, to invest their own money on space would have been hard to imagine 20 years ago. And their recent success in developing reusable rockets has fueled confidence in the technology. For instance, SpaceX launched and landed a used Falcon 9 booster rocket for the first time in March.

An Air Force-industry panel discusses space access at an Air Force Association event on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Marc Selinger/Defense Daily)
An Air Force-industry panel discusses space access at an Air Force Association event on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Marc Selinger/Defense Daily)

“SpaceX launching and catching the used rocket was an eye-opener for a lot of people who said it couldn’t be done,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Schilling, who led the Air University’s recent Fast Space/Ultra-Low-Cost Access to Space (ULCATS) study. Schilling was one of several speakers at an Air Force Association “fast space” event on Capitol Hill.

On the political front, the new Trump administration has signaled strong interest in advancing the nation’s space capabilities, such as by committing to revive the long-dormant National Space Council. Vice President Mike Pence is expected to chair the council.

There is a “convergence of opportunity,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten, director of strategic plans in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements. “I think it’s the right time.”

The ULCATS study envisions the military launching satellites weekly or even daily, compared to its currently monthly pace, by building on what the private sector has already done to cut launch costs and turnaround times. The study calls for the U.S. government to set up a “purpose-built organization” to partner with industry to speed up the development of those capabilities (Defense Daily, April 27).

“We’re not talking about something giant,” said Lt. Col. Peter Garretson, who leads Air University’s Space Horizons Initiative. “We’re talking about, like, 12 people on the West Coast with the right authorities to really move quickly.”

Creating such an organization would require action by Congress or the White House, according to Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space LLC and principal investigator for the ULCATS study. The high-level space council could help remove bureaucratic barriers to “fast space.”

Industry is “willing to partner with the U.S. government to accelerate the development of a fully reusable launch vehicle,” Miller said. “it’s not without risk, but we have risk-takers out there who are willing to take that risk and lead and put their own skin in the game.”