Tuesday, January 19, 2021

SN Military Space | Space Force gives kudos to Virgin Orbit • Biden's SecDef nominee faces SASC • Trump’s final space policy directive
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Tuesday, January 19, 2021


Today's brief

  • Space Force gives kudos to Virgin Orbit after successful flight 
  • SecDef nominee Austin faces Senate Armed Services Committee
  • Trump's 11th hour space policy directive focuses on GPS

The chief of the U.S. Space Force Gen. John Raymond congratulated Virgin Orbit on Sunday after the company's LauncherOne successfully reached orbit for the first time and deployed several small satellites for NASA. 

The U.S. military is a key customer for Virgin Orbit, founded by space billionaire Richard Branson to compete in the commercial and government small-satellite launch markets.

  • A Virgin Orbit subsidiary called VOX Space was formed in 2017 to focus on the national security space business.
  • The Air Force in 2017 awarded VOX Space its first military contract for LauncherOne. That mission was supposed to fly in 2018.
  • The Air Force (and now the Space Force) have supported Virgin Orbit through years of delays.
  • In April 2020 it awarded the company another contract for three additional missions. 
Virgin Orbit's rockets do not take off from traditional launch pads but are dropped from under the wing of a Boeing 747 aircraft. The Space Force is planning to launch two small-satellite missions in 2021 on Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne — both from Andersen Air Force Base on the island of Guam in the Western Pacific. The company chose Guam for its strategic location that would allow LauncherOne to fly in different directions. 

'Tactically responsive' launch services

Virgin Orbit is positioning itself to challenge sector leader RocketLab and still-in-development players like ABL, Astra and Aevum in the portion of the military market known as tactically responsive launch. 

  • The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsored a competition in 2018 offering prizes for responsive launch systems that could get satellites to orbit quickly and inexpensively. That contest did not produce any winners but the military has not given up on the idea.
  • The Space Force in its first doctrine document said it will need access to launch vehicles to quickly put up satellites into orbit on short notice during armed conflicts or other crises.
  • One of the selling points of air-launched space vehicles is their flexibility to take off from commercial airports or military bases. 

Virgin Orbit anticipates a growing demand as the military steps up procurements of small satellites. "We're really excited to see a change in thinking across the national security space community, and see them embrace small satellites," VOX Space president Mandy Vaughn said last month on a TechCrunch webcast. She mentioned DARPA and the Space Development Agency as two DoD organizations that are sending a "strong demand signal" with plans to deploy proliferate constellations of small satellites. 

Competition from big rockets

Virgin Orbit faces competitive challenges from small satellite launchers and also from rideshare services provided by large rockets like SpaceX's Falcon 9. 

Vaughn said she's not worried about the rideshare threat. "The industry has inherent flexibility," she said, arguing that customers have needs for both dedicated launch services and rideshares. 

In addition to Space Force missions, Virgin Orbit has booked launches from the U.K. Royal Air Force and from commercial customers Swarm Technologies, Italy's SITAEL and Denmark's GomSpace. Rockets are being produced and integrated at the company's manufacturing plant in Long Beach, California.

The Senate Armed Services Committee today holds a confirmation hearing for retired Army general Lloyd Austin, president-elect Joe Biden's nominee to be defense secretary. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) on Friday introduced legislation to provide a waiver for Austin so he can serve as Pentagon chief even though he has not been retired from the military for seven years as the law requires. Credit: buildbackbetter.gov


The Trump administration in its closing days issued a policy memo that addresses the United States' dependence on GPS. Space Policy Directive-7 highlights the United States' ever growing reliance on space-based positioning, navigation and timing. It suggests government and commercial organizations should have access to backup PNT technologies as GPS signals are likely to be disrupted.

The Space and Missile Systems Center confirmed on Friday it moved forward with a contract award to National Security Technology Accelerator (NSTXL) to manage the U.S. Space Force's Space Enterprise Consortium for the next 10 years. The award had been delayed to further evaluate a court judgment against NSTXL in a lawsuit filed by a former business partner.

The Pentagon on Thursday released its annual report to Congress on the state of the defense industrial base. The report warns that U.S. military satellites and missiles continue to rely on customized hardware and niche components that are no longer manufactured domestically. DoD says these programs need to invest in new technology and qualify new suppliers to ensure they have access to domestic sources.

Blue Origin on Thursday launched its New Shepard rocket, a vehicle designed for suborbital space tourism. The company tested for the first time a new booster and crew capsule outfitted with astronaut experience upgrades. The 10-minute flight with a dummy named Mannequin Skywalker soared 66 miles above West Texas. Both the rocket and the capsule returned to Earth successfully. Credit: Blue Origin

SN Military.Space is published Tuesdays by SpaceNews Staff Writer Sandra Erwin and Editor-in-Chief Brian Berger.

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