The U.S. Air Force, NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office have finally issued a first-of-a-kind strategy for certifying new entrants seeking to compete for national security space launches.
This is not a change for NASA, which already works with commercial launch companies, but the strategy lays out new criteria for companies seeking to break into the market for national security launches. Though not solely intended to address companies seeking to loft larger satellites, this new criteria will set the stage for a likely duel between Space Exploration Technologies and its young Falcon 9 and the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V and Delta IV vehicles, which boast a record of 43 successes.
In an exclusive interview with Aviation Week, Air Force Undersecretary Erin Conaton explains how new entrants to the market will have to craft a track record through experience and verification processes. [Editor's note: AWIN and AW&ST subscribers, see story in Oct. 17th issue.]
The three agencies have outlined four classes of payloads – A to D – that range in risk tolerance, criticality to national security missions and cost to develop. Part of the risk assessment is the fragility of the constellation associated with the payload; a more robust constellation could allow for more risk tolerance.
Class A payloads are those satellites for which there is very low or no risk tolerance and that provide critical services; the Space-Based Infrared System is likely an example. Class D payloads, by contrast, allow for a high risk of launch success.
The strategy outlines a matrix of capabilities, including the number of successful launches, and verification activities, that must be demonstrated by a company to compete for varying launches.
“If you have more successful launches under your belt, that would mean less technical data and other supporting documentation that you would have to provide,” Conaton says. “If you have fewer launches, commensurately, then you would require more technical data and backup.”
The new criteria will also, however, provide a path for those launch vehicles made by Orbital Sciences and Alliant Techsystems/EADS that don't currently deliver Pentagon and NRO payloads to earn the right to compete.
Ultimately, officials from all three agencies say they hope the cost of launching satellites will come down by introducing competition into the market.