Process, Control, the SDA’s SpaceX Selection

Process, Control, the SDA’s SpaceX Selection


“Process” can be good and evil in any organization. Processes of certain activities can be captured and improved upon to help with productivity. They can help organizations avoid repeating the same mistakes or making the same decisions that lead to those mistakes and help move things along. Process can be a tool for good.

But processes can also cause problems. People are too willing to go along with processes without questioning them. There’s a tendency to believe the process and the person’s ability to adhere to it is the recipe for success--not the person’s ability to improve or eliminate them. We see this conflation everywhere: diet programs, the Ten Commandments, and, yes, military space system/service acquisitions. Sticking to the process means not rocking the boat. People with a talent for gyroscopic process steadiness get rewarded.

But if a person or organization decides the process doesn’t work--even using excellent rationales--Monday-morning quarterbacking and chastisement typically follows. Special attention is given if the ignored process aims to protect “commercial” businesses--especially if some of those businesses have senators in their corner to “enforce” that particular process.

This is why the following statements were released in early November 2020:

“The Phase 2 contract is designed to lower the costs of the most stressing national security requirements by leveraging buying power across a multitude of mission types. If individual programs pursue commercial launch for lower tier missions and remove those missions from the Phase 2 contract, increasing costs for the remaining missions and ultimately higher government costs will likely result.”

U.S. senators authored the nonsense within the “EXPLANATORY STATEMENT FOR THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE APPROPRIATIONS BILL, 2021” (pg 150) as a reprimand and reminder to the Department of Defense (DoD). Senators wanted the DoD to know there are dire consequences if certain agencies continue not using launch services procured in Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program. In essence, NSSL costs will increase for the government if certain DoD agencies keep using less costly commercial launch options (instead of NSSL).

One might believe that perhaps the NSSL program is broken (maybe even unnecessary) if it results in cost increases because an organization chooses a lower-cost commercial option externally. Don’t worry--the U.S. senators are ready to disabuse us of that belief.


The Space Development Agency (SDA) likely prompted that paragraph when it requested launch bids in early October. The fact that the SDA chose SpaceX’s proposal on New Year’s Eve for very low per launch costs (for DoD launches) will probably prompt both puffery and “investigations” from the political side. But the value and savings of the $150.4 million contracts with SpaceX for two launches (that’s ~$75 million/launch) by late 2022 are difficult to argue against--even with twisted Phase 2 logic. Since the contract cost is so low, it’s unlikely any other U.S. launch service provider will fight for it. The launch per kilogram cost is still high, at $30,000.

Other factors to consider--the SpaceX launches will deploy a total of 28 SDA prototype satellites with an aggregate mass of 5 tons. That total required mass narrowed the field to three U.S. launch service providers: Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, and ULA. Smallsat launcher Rocket Lab might have been able to launch one SDA satellite per launch with its Electron. But, Rocket Lab would need to launch about 28 Electrons in less than two years--requiring an annual launch rate the company hasn’t come close to achieving.

SpaceX is used to conducting launches with multiple payloads on board. The company demonstrated this expertise during its particular method for deploying Starlink satellites with 100% reliability--15 times. SpaceX also demonstrated this competence for successful smallsat deployments using more complex mission profiles, such as STP-2 (using the Falcon Heavy).

The Falcon 9 rocket’s current iteration is also one of the most reliable rockets in the U.S. launch service provider inventory with 100% reliability. It’s fair to say that the more SpaceX launches and lands a Falcon 9, the more the company learns about rocket reliability and longevity--and applies that learning. This is something no other launch service provider in the world can do (except for Rocket Lab). This knowledge allows the company to ratchet up the Falcon 9’s annual launch rate with certainty, averaging two launches per month in 2020.

To be clear, SpaceX conducts few DoD-focused launches annually compared to its civil and commercial launches. Of the 25 SpaceX launches in 2020, only three were for the DoD. So, while SpaceX pursues relatively easy and remarkable sums of military money, it’s not dependent on it. That lack of dependency is a healthy business state for SpaceX. It also means SpaceX’s success is not--and this is important--pinned to U.S. lawmakers fancying themselves as U.S. space launch marketplace promoters. They have no control of SpaceX and its ambitions.

The “Phase 2” justifications and language exposes that these lawmakers want control. A more open market does not allow that control to continue, so they specified NSSL adherence in the statement. Plus, they established that a DoD organization needing launch services other than what NSSL requires would need a note from the Secretary of Defense or Director of National Intelligence. I assume their time is better spent doing something other than supplying permission slips for launches. This is an example of process going awry to maintain the status quo.

Mission Needs versus “The Process”

There are very few unknowns with the Falcon 9. Based on the company’s latest annual launch rate, it’s certain SpaceX will have a Falcon 9 ready when the SDA’s prototype satellites are completed (probably the most significant uncertainties for the SDA’s program). That certainty is something nearly every mission assurance manager can get behind. It’s what the military has wanted for decades. The fact that a commercial company can meet that need without a long-term program is not unusual. But the fact that a commercial launch provider’s SDA launches are half what the NSSL is paying (to the same company) should make other DoD space acquisitions offices take notice.

The government’s role in NSSL is apparently “leveraging buying power” for ULA’s services (yes, SpaceX also has an NSSL contract). The verbiage equates to throwing the company a few life-support bones as it glacially moves toward its first Vulcan launch. But what if a company in the NSSL program knows (and has demonstrated) that it can launch for significantly less than the program stipulates? SpaceX appears to think it can support DoD missions even less expensively and is doing so with the SDA contract. This is the “American Way,” isn’t it?

Instead of admonishing the DoD for “rogue” agencies taking advantage of low launch costs while cutting space system development time, shouldn’t they be praised? The SDA’s actions, including selecting SpaceX as a launch provider, are examples of how it’s using the U.S. commercial space industry in fulfilling mission requirements for much less money--quickly.

The agency is attempting to accomplish that feat within a few years, not the decades that many acquisitions managers have become comfortable with (easy to do when you’re not in the line of fire). If the SDA succeeds, it will be fielding a system that may, at the very least, provide U.S. soldiers in the field a combat edge while increasing survival chances for them and the U.S.

That’s the point of buying these systems, after all.