Three Years Ago
I posted one of the first analyses on Ill-Defined Space in April 2020. In it, I covered the Space Development Agency’s (SDA) first publicized plans for deploying 20 satellites by 2022. I was skeptical about those plans. Extremely skeptical. There were at least three primary things I thought would hinder the SDA in achieving its goals: too aggressive of a schedule, costly satellites, and satellite performance. All of that was based on the Department of Defense’s mountains of history demonstrating its incapability to achieve any such thing with its previous satellite acquisition programs.
The reasons for my skepticism (pardon the length):
Tackling the most unlikely prospect first: the schedule. The SDA would like to have 20 satellites operating by 2022. This schedule includes actual satellite bus and payload designs as well as selecting the ground architecture that makes sense for the constellation. Then it means selecting the contractor who has the best shot at creating the satellite and ground infrastructure.
None of the current U.S. primes–Boeing, Lockheed Martin, or Northrop Grumman–have demonstrated the ability to build one sophisticated military communications satellite in less than three years, much less a constellation of 20. To suggest they could then manufacture and deploy “[h]undreds of Transport Layer space vehicles” (the initial estimate was for 250) in less than four years from today (with potentially other mission-unique payloads) is ludicrous. Okay, maybe it’s not impossible, but based on other factors, including history, this proposed scenario is very, very unlikely.
This SDA schedule would require legacy satellite manufacturers to revamp factory floors and take hard looks at their processes to accommodate its schedule. That would cost those companies money, which they would charge back, somehow, to the DoD. These changes are not inexpensive and they aren’t something that can be done quickly through typical defense acquisitions processes. Why do I focus on legacy manufacturers–because the history of DoD acquisitions for these kinds of space projects tend to favor them.
Hitting Mission Goals
Three years, almost to the day, have passed since that analysis, and the SDA is accomplishing what it set out to do. That accomplishment is a “good thing.” One example of SDA’s good things is that a SpaceX Falcon 9 launched and deployed ten SDA satellites on April 3, 2023. Eight of those ten were manufactured by the Colorado company York Space Systems. SpaceX had manufactured the other two. Both provided satellites less than three years after the SDA signed contracts with York Space Systems in August 2020 (with SpaceX in October 2020). L3Harris also was awarded an SDA contract for four satellites in October 2020. That company’s and SpaceX’s satellites are supposed to demonstrate missile tracking (for those wondering what that is, I covered that here).
Neither SpaceX nor York Space had manufactured satellites for the U.S. military until then. That addresses the concern about U.S. primes being involved and dragging out the process (and upping the costs). However, the DoD’s tendency to favor legacy space companies–Lockheed Martin, L3Harris, and Northrop Grumman–shows in its selection–especially since at least two of those companies don’t have smallsat mass-manufacturing facilities. But they subcontracted that aspect out–usually extracting higher contract amounts from the SDA.
For example, Lockheed Martin also received a contract award for ten tranche 0 SDA satellites in August 2020. The SDA indicates those satellites will be ready to launch in June 2023, which is unusually and uncharacteristically speedy for that legacy company. At least, it seems that way until one finds out that the company offloaded the smallsat bus mass-manufacturing to Terran Orbital. That was smart. It’s still interesting that Lockheed managed to build enough satellite payloads and integrated them quickly into Terran Orbital’s satellite busses.
Smallsat manufacturing facilities were already planned or in place for all three companies–SpaceX, Terran Orbital, and York Space. That eliminated the time lag to design and then build a factory.
Still a Little Pricey…
On the other hand, satellite costs still are a bit high–at least from an outsider’s perspective.
The higher costs may be because of satellite sensor and communications development (or because of legacy space company “overheads”). SpaceX’s four missile-tracking satellites cost the SDA a little over $37 million each. York Space’s ten broadband satellites for Tranche 0 are nearly $9.5 million each. Terran Orbital’s/Lockheed’s ten satellites cost double York’s (of course), at $18.8 million each. L3Harris’ four satellites cost the most, ~$48 million each. All told, the 28 satellites cost a little over $600 million, which, for the DoD, could be a bargain. It’s certainly less than an AEHF satellite’s $850 million. And, bonus: more than a third of SDA’s 28 satellites are already in orbit.
The true success of those satellites depends on whether they can accomplish the SDA’s National Defense Space Architecture (NDSA) mission. That, and other performance-related criteria, is yet to be determined.
Since those initial contract awards, the SDA has awarded more to York and Lockheed. It’s also awarded contracts to Northrop Grumman, which has joined with Airbus (using the company’s OneWeb satellite bus) for one of its SDA ventures (about $16.5 million per satellite). Theoretically, those satellites will be ready for deployment by September 2024.
Except…is it a theory anymore? The first 28 satellites for the SDA’s NDSA mission appear ready to go, with ten already deployed. Three years ago, that achievement seemed unlikely to me, a sentiment bolstered by many decades of observed DoD underachievement in space acquisitions. Manufacturing ten satellites in that time would have been beyond the DoD’s ability. So, the SDA’s accomplishment is astonishing.
…but Others Might Benefit
Another item to consider, however, is the rise in companies able to mass-produce small satellites quickly or relatively quickly. I’ve already analyzed the potential of OneWeb’s and SpaceX’s satellite manufacturing capabilities. Each one can manufacture one or more satellites per day–a capability the SDA contracts will likely not tax. The others, such as York and Terran Orbital, talked big about fast manufacturing rates but remained unknown until they manufactured the SDA’s satellites. While Northrop Grumman isn’t proven, Airbus/OneWeb has demonstrated, through the existence of a full OneWeb constellation, that it can mass manufacture satellites speedily.
However, once these companies fulfill their contractual obligations to the SDA, they aren’t going to sit still. They have factories and intend to use them, probably for more than military contracts. Once the NDSA contracts are completed, what else could they do? It may be (and this is a guess) that a healthy satellite manufacturing sector not reliant on government contracts arises from these companies. While it’s unclear if there are enough customers to make that occur, a few customers are using their products. We already see Airbus/OneWeb scoring commercial contracts that use the Arrow bus. York also has at least one commercial customer for its satellites.
Calling these companies' products smallsats seems inaccurate, given some of their payload hosting capabilities. Aside from Terran Orbital, none of the other companies involved use cubesat buses. Presumably, SpaceX is using a bus based on its Starlink satellite (with a mass of over 300 kg). The OneWeb/Airbus Arrow platform is advertised with a mass ranging from 300 to 500 kg). York Space’s buses have masses from over 85 to over 300 kg. Considering the contract costs, the SDA may decide that Lockheed’s/Terran Orbital’s cubesat-based design is far too limiting while costing twice as much.
More payload mass capability provides customers, such as the SDA, flexibility in the payloads that each company can integrate into them. That characteristic allows a satellite to have not just a payload, but other niceties, such as optical crosslinks, more power, etc. In addition, it allows customers more latitude in the trade-offs necessary during a mission design, getting more bang for the buck or encouraging creativity in the type of payload that will be deployed.
Currently, the SDA is moving quickly–for a DoD organization. It turns out that it can achieve the aggressive schedule it set for itself three years ago. However, some of the companies it’s contracting with can provide satellites even faster (and less expensively). Also, while the SDA satellites seem expensive, they still cost less than a typical DoD satellite. That cost-cutting might impact overall performance when compared to a typical DoD satellite, but not the SDA’s mission performance requirements. However, the lower costs might result in less reliability–but that remains a question until the SDA conducts daily space operations. Of my three initial concerns, satellite performance is the question that is yet to be answered.
Considering the momentum the SDA seems to have gained in its so far successful quest to move DoD space acquisitions from glacial to acceptable movement levels, it will be interesting to see how long the SDA keeps the (seemingly) inevitable cruft off its processes. If it can do so for over a decade, then it should be considered a win for those advocating smarter and faster ways for the DoD to acquire satellites. And, as the companies fulfill SDA contracts, they will likely fight each other for commercial customers, offering products with decent capability and short manufacturing schedules.
Not a terrible start for the SDA.