Commercial Smallsat Industry / Government Needs



This SpaceNews.com article, “Government’s role in the small launch market not quite black and white,” conveniently comes at a time when I thought it may be useful to cursorily review some U.S. space industry history. I wanted to write this analysis as a reminder of the niche small satellite launch companies like Rocket Lab or Virgin Orbit are filling. This history also yields some reasons as to why a few of these companies are focusing on government contracts (as noted in “Rocket Lab’s Electron Upgrades and Government Contract Aims”).


While there are several interesting quotes in the article, the one I disagreed with was this, from Janic Starzyk of Bryce Research and Technology:


“Small launch capability is important to the government and has become more of a national security asset,” Starzyk said. “They cannot count on the commercial market supporting these companies. They have to know that without the government as an anchor tenant these companies won’t survive.”

Small launch capability was ALWAYS important to the DoD. Important enough that it attempted to develop its own asset many years ago.


Space Cowboys--the USAF Way


One reason why these companies are pursuing government business stems from the hoped-for gains from the DoD’s experiment with ORS. While the military had access to a smallsat launch operator already, in the early to mid-2000s the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) wanted a capability it dubbed Operationally Responsive Space (ORS). It wanted this capability so keenly it established an office of the same name in 2007. ORS was supposed to be a leaner, faster military process and ability to meet military space needs. The very wordy mission of the ORS was to:


“...plan and prepare for the rapid development of highly responsive space capabilities that enable delivery of timely warfighting effects and, when directed, develop and support deployment and operations of these capabilities to enhance and assure support to Joint Force Commanders’ and other users’ needs for on-demand space support, augmentation, and reconstitution.”

A 2012 Air & Space article summed up ORS’ mission (and it’s “Tier 3” responsiveness goal) in three lines:


ORS is about process—perhaps the most yawn-inducing word in the English language. For a certain class of small spacecraft, ORS wants to replace the traditional, multi-year, customized process of spacecraft development with one that enables near-instant gratification.

The upshot (in less than two lines) was the DoD wanted rapid development and fielding of small satellites and the systems to launch them.


The DoD had nothing like this capability at that time. ORS was intended as a workaround of the DoD’s very broken (even then) acquisitions process. To highlight the possibilities from a successful ORS program, the author of that same 2012 Air & Space article combined space history with an industry participant’s observation:


Quick-launch spacecraft are not impossible. In 1982, the Soviet Union, wanting to spy on the Falklands War from space, launched 29 satellites in 69 days. “It’s something the U.S. couldn’t do then and couldn’t do now,” says James Wertz, president of Microcosm Inc. in Hawthorne, California, and founder of a long-running series of conferences on responsiveness in space.

ORS didn’t accomplish that feat, either.


It should be obvious (based on recent Space Force reorgs) ORS failed to accomplish these tasks even though it did manage to field or destroy a few satellites. Up through early 2018, when ORS went through a name change, the elements for allowing ORS to focus on these processes for the DoD never fully matured. The eleven years following ORS’s 2007 founding resulted in deploying four satellites successfully--a poor showing by any definition for an organization aiming for “rapid development.”


To be clear, what the DoD wanted from ORS was:

  1. Small, useful satellites

  2. primarily for Earth observation or communications

  3. to be manufactured within a few months, not years

  4. The ability to launch these satellites

  5. Quickly (on a moment’s notice)

  6. Into the required orbit

Small, Useful Satellites


While ORS produced few smallsats, a stream, and then a flood of cubesats and smallsats from new commercial manufacturers and operators across the globe came into being. Those companies manufactured “smallsats” at a faster pace. Companies like Planet produced optical Earth observation cubesats faster than the ORS program envisioned. Other companies, such as Clyde Space and ISIS (the nice one), offered cubesat manufacturing services to any customer. By 2016, Clyde Space revealed it was manufacturing six cubesats a month.


By 2020, SpaceX had noted it was manufacturing the larger (but still categorized as smallsats) Starlink broadband satellites at a rate of seven per day (over 200 satellites per month). The company revealed later in August 2020 that it could manufacture **only** 120 Starlink satellites per month (more along the lines of four satellites per day). The amended change is a 43% drop from its initial “seven per day” revelation.


However, and despite SpaceX’s monthly drop, smallsat manufacturing rates, from 6 to 120 per month, are likely beyond what ORS envisioned. In aggregate, commercial companies around the world are likely manufacturing hundreds of satellites per month. This total certainly exceeds the four satellites per decade manufacturing rate established by ORS.


To be clear, the number of commercially-focused smallsats deployed annually during the past five years tends to significantly exceed smallsats deployed for civil or military missions. Early in those five years, Planet and Spire would be responsible for a majority of those smallsat deployments. Lately, SpaceX and OneWeb have been dominating the category with deployments of their LEO broadband smallsats. Based on the data behind these activities, it would appear that commercial payloads alone would drive many more smallsat launches.


Smallsat Launch


Cubesats, because they have standardized dimensions (in theory), can be placed on any space launch vehicle (so long as there’s a cubesat deployer for it). While Russia can launch many satellites on rockets like the Dnepr and Soyuz, other nations such as India and China stepped in to offer rideshare services to smallsat operators. By February 2017, India launched over 100 satellites on one of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (a record even today). Planet used India’s PSLV to deploy many of its Dove cubesats.


Companies like Rocket Lab, Virgin Galactic, Firefly, etc. were founded to cater to smallsat operators, offering dedicated launches for smallsats. Rocket Lab is one of the few smallsat launch service providers with an operational space launch vehicle.


Rideshare services have already been analyzed on this site, such as the one offered by SpaceX (“Examining SpaceX’s Smallsat Rideshare Program”). The only thing to note in this analysis regarding that topic is that rideshare services like SpaceX’s program provide another relatively predictable, reliable, and somewhat flexible way to launch smallsats.


Of the U.S. companies, Rocket Lab and SpaceX alone provide a majority of the smallsat launches. SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites at a time, trading out Starlink satellites for smallsat operators willing to pay for a shared ride to orbit. Between the two companies, the annual launch cadence of 19 launches in 2019.


As of August 16, 2020, they are at 15 for the year. Both companies offer rockets that launch smallsats, are reliable, and more capable than what ORS was fielding. Virgin Orbit looks on the verge of getting its LauncherOne smallsat rocket operational. Before Rocket Lab, ORS opted to use expensive launch vehicles from Orbital Sciences (now Northrop Grumman Space Systems) or launch vehicles that resembled sounding rockets.


The question that arises is whether it’s important to the DoD’s missions whether national security smallsat launch is laser-focused on smallsat-dedicated rockets? Would a healthy mix, as we see now in the U.S. market, fulfill the requirements just as well?


Assuming the DoD is laser-focused leads it to finance costly programs for “growing” competitors. These competitors would ultimately serve military space missions that are not as numerous as their commercial counterparts. That laser-focus leads to well-meaning but wrong-headed efforts such as the aborted DPA-based smallsat launch provider contracts. Referencing back to Starzyk’s quote, her other premises for why the DoD is necessary are quite definitely in that well-meaning/wrong-headed realm.


For the military to be unable to “count on” commercial mechanisms for supporting small launch companies sounds very much like the justifications used for allowing Boeing and Lockheed to merge into ULA. It works for a while, but not long--kind of like the space industry equivalent of throwing sod on top of a layer of fertilizer--which will never, ever be watered afterward. This means her last statement is inherently true--none of those companies that aren’t operational today would likely survive without DoD support (although, I am not quite sure it’s because the market won’t bear another few competitors).


The current capability represented by U.S. companies represents a healthier, more capable option for the DoD. Companies like Planet and Rocket Lab know this, understanding, based on ORS’s stated mission, that flexible, reliable, and fast smallsat launch is desirable for the DoD. These DoD desires are yet other reasons, aside from money, for why these companies are looking for government/DoD contracts--historically, this capability is what it wanted.

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