An absorbing interview surrounding Virgin Galactic and Orbit sparked some thoughts about the Department of Defense’s unsuccessful forays into responsive space. If Virgin Orbit launches a proper business, will the DoD's responsive space wish come true? Or is its fulfillment a case of being “careful what you wish for?”
During a Wall Street Journal virtual interview this week, Sir Richard Branson noted Virgin Orbit (VO) had spent about $1 billion developing the LauncherOne air-launched rocket. He anticipated spending about $1.2 billion in total to complete LauncherOne development.
That’s a lot of money in new space launch system development (unless we’re including Space Launch System).
It is useful to look at SpaceX’s Falcon 9 development cost and put that $1 billion investment in perspective. The company, with NASA verification, spent ~$300 million to get the Falcon 9 flying. Another launch provider, Rocket Lab, plunked down $180 million for developing its Electron small satellite rocket.
And while this cost comparison highlights these companies’ different spending philosophies, Dan Hart (VO’s CEO) refrain during the same interview caught my attention. He emphasized, a few times, the unique capabilities LauncherOne brings to the launch industry. Boiled down, LauncherOne can launch small satellites:
To any orbit
At any time
On very short notice (24-48 hours)
From any continent
Who Could Use All Four Capabilities?
To be clear, these capabilities aren’t new, but thinking about this--who is the customer who wants (not needs) all four of them? NASA? While that might be a silly answer, Hart brings up NASA as a LauncherOne customer during the interview. And NASA will have payloads on LauncherOne’s next test launch. While some view this as a vote of confidence from the administration in VO’s launch system, the cynics might take the view that perhaps NASA’s satellites are not very expensive--meaning that if the test doesn’t go well, NASA’s budget isn’t busted.
But back to the question of who needs all three LauncherOne capabilities. NASA likely could use a diverse choice in orbits. But NASA isn’t known for speedy satellite development. Its missions also typically aren’t the kind requiring the last three launching capabilities at any time from anywhere at very short notice.
What about commercial customers? Hart mentions them as well.
The ability to “launch” from nearly any runway (that’s 747-friendly) is undoubtedly appealing to customers who aren’t in the United States. This global footprint gives other nations hosting VO activities a nearly instant rocket-launch capacity (how this will work with ITAR is another question). Suppose those nations (Hart mentioned over 70 countries have space agencies) have a relatively open and bustling space industry. In that case, local space companies could undoubtedly take advantage of the “anywhere” capability of LauncherOne. Would these companies desire the ability to launch from anywhere other than their locality?
I am not sure, but I think they wouldn’t (based on U.S. space company activities).
The commercial companies would certainly take advantage of LauncherOne’s “any orbit” capability (although I suspect most would want polar/sun-synchronous orbits). It would be advantageous for startups and established companies not to have to worry about coordinating their development schedule with launch availability, knowing that LauncherOne could be launched at any time. This scheduling flexibility would save them money, and they could see nearly immediate returns on deployed satellites.
The apparent customer, who desires all four launch traits, is the military. The military is continually voicing concerns of anti-satellite systems targeting large Department of Defense satellites (some of which costs billions). The DoD wants to give adversaries’ pause in such schemes by having a launch system available that can launch its satellites on short notice at any time from any place. LauncherOne would be the commercially-provided version of the USAF’s Operationally Responsive Space program (ORS).
In “Commercial Smallsat Industry / Government Needs,” I pointed to the desirable capabilities ORS was supposed to bring to the space fight. They might sound familiar:
To be clear, what the DoD wanted from ORS was:
small, useful satellites
primarily for Earth observation or communications
to be manufactured within a few months, not years
the ability to launch these satellites
quickly (on a moment’s notice)
into the required orbit
A relevant question, particularly if VO successfully test-launches LauncherOne, is--what is next for the DoD? It might soon have the ability to launch a satellite or two from anywhere at any time on short notice. Does it have the satellites (EO, communications, etc.) on hand to use this capability? Can it even get satellites manufactured in large numbers on short notice?
Be Careful What You Wish For
The answer to both of these questions is: no. With the National Reconnaissance Office as the possible exception, the DoD’s space acquisitions offices in the other military services have proven spectacularly inept at moving quickly. From that same analysis, I summarized that ORS was no exception to this ineptness and that it:
“...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 sure, there are commercial options out there for the DoD to use. Two commercial satellite manufacturing companies that could help the DoD with its satellite problem, SpaceX and OneWeb. SpaceX manufactures 120 satellites per month while OneWeb can manufacture (pre-pandemic) about 1-2 per day. There are other companies, such as Berlin Space Technologies, Blue Canyon, York Space, and more that could ramp up enough to produce backup satellites with a plethora of sensors for various DoD/intelligence missions.
The Space Development Agency (SDA) is already working with SpaceX for its missile warning demonstration satellites. The large (-ish) constellation the SDA would like to eventually field requires standby replacements. Potentially, VO could benefit--if it ever gets operational.
However, even without VO’s service, the USAF had a pretty good workaround for the lack of rapid launch capability. In the past, replacement DoD satellites (when they exist) are in orbit already. The Global Positioning System constellation exemplifies this approach to satellite redundancy. Whether those satellites are at more risk in space from attack than satellites stored in a terrestrial warehouse is doubtful (GPS-guided missiles come to mind). But perhaps satellite congestion is becoming a worry for this type of backup system.
If VO can get LauncherOne operational, it will provide the DoD part of a long-sought-after capability--for less expense than the DoD showers on other launch providers. The problem is--where are those satellite backups? Are they even manufactured?
Without the satellites, the DoD will be left holding VO’s rocket in its hands.