Pressure to reduce defense spending and potential growth in the medium-class launch vehicle market could provide the catalyst that will finally allow the Pentagon to reduce the size of its massive, expensive satellites and, eventually, reduce the high cost of operating in space.
For decades, the cost of launch has driven the Pentagon to build large satellites, as engineers effectively crammed as much capability as possible on each rocket.
“Because of the cost of launch and the capacity that we have with the launch vehicles, it has made the model more economical to make bigger satellites,” says Dave Madden, executive director of the Space and Missile Systems Center, which oversees procurement of satellites and boosters for the Air Force. “It is kind of like a death spiral, [but] competition in the medium [class] will enable us to build smaller spacecraft and launch them for much less money and, fundamentally, change that model.”
There has long been rhetoric from senior Air Force officials on this subject, but several forces may be converging to make good on such a shift. There is now an abundance of commercially available spacecraft buses suitable for launching on medium-class boosters. And, they appear to be appropriate for handling future USAF missions that call for smaller satellites—including a next-generation weather satellite and infrared missile warning spacecraft as well as a tactical, protected satellite communications design, Madden says.
These commercially available buses mean the Pentagon will not have to carry the cost of nonrecurring engineering for the flight software or bus upgrades. There were unique and high costs for these elements of the current satellite constellations.
Furthermore, a culture that has grown accustomed to the old model of building large, often $1 billion spacecraft, now appears outdated in light of financial pressure. “If we tried to push this through three or four years ago, I think we would have gotten a lot of resistance,” Madden says. “The environment we are in right now is affording us the opportunity to look hard at this . . . . Sometimes it is really hard for us if there isn't a reason to change.” The new model could also allow for 4-5-year cycle times compared to the at least eight years needed to deliver a payload today.
Finally, Madden says, potential growth in the medium-class launch vehicle market could subject this piece of the equation to the forces of competition. USAF is in negotiations with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to outline the steps needed to gain certification.