The Space Force is starting to lean into innovative launch concepts

A Falcon 9 rocket launched a GPS III satellite in November 2020. Then, the same first stage launched another GPS III satellite in June 2021.
Enlarge / A Falcon 9 rocket launched a GPS III satellite in November 2020. Then, the same first stage launched another GPS III satellite in June 2021.

Trevor Mahlmann

In June, a previously flown Falcon 9 booster lofted a new-generation Global Positioning Satellite for the US Space Force. This marked a watershed moment for the US military and the concept of reusable rockets, as the Space Force entrusted a satellite worth about half a billion dollars to the new technology.

Now, thanks to a recent news release from the US Space Force, we have a little more insight into why the Space Force is leaning into reusable rockets and other technology from innovative companies such as SpaceX.

Using a refurbished booster—this particular first stage had launched a GPS III satellite in November 2020—did save the Space Force money. By agreeing to launch two of its new GPS III satellites on used rockets, essentially, the US government pocketed $52 million in cost savings. This was certainly welcome, Space Force officials said, and it’s nice to have the potential to increase launch tempo.

However, the most important factor, according to the chief of the US Space Force, is tapping into American innovation.

“While innovation and speed inevitably come with risk, the biggest threat to our success is moving too slowly and refusing to change,” said Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations, in the release. “This launch proves the Space Force will smartly innovate to grow our national advantage in a contested space environment.”

During the process of certifying the previously flown Falcon 9 rocket, and preparing it for a re-launch, Space Force officials worked side by side with SpaceX technicians to better understand the hardware and reuse process. This was both a learning opportunity for the military and also served to make them more comfortable with SpaceX and its efforts to push the boundaries of reuse.

This is not the first time SpaceX has pushed the US military to adopt innovation. As part of its “Range of the Future” program, the US Space Force recently agreed to test and adopt an automated flight termination system for launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Additionally, the military has expressed an interest in SpaceX’s “Starship” program that seeks to develop a fully reusable, super-heavy lift rocket. As part of a new “Rocket Cargo” program,” the Air Force seeks to leverage emerging commercial rocket capabilities to launch cargo from one location and land elsewhere on Earth.

“This idea has been around since the dawn of spaceflight,” said Greg Spanjers, an Air Force scientist and the Rocket Cargo program manager, earlier this year. “It’s always been an intriguing idea. We’ve looked at it about every 10 years, but it’s never really made sense. The reason we’re doing it now is because it looks like technology may have caught up with a good idea.”

The US military has a well-earned reputation for a stodgy approach to high-risk activities, like spaceflight. But it seems like one benefit of creating the US Space Force has been a prodding to think about space activities in a new way and a willingness to adapt to once-radical ideas.

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