SN Military Space | 2020 storylines that shaped national security space ULA to deliver one final Delta 2 rocket for KSC exhibit
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Tuesday, December 29, 2020


Today's briefing

  • 2020 storylines that shaped national security space 
  • ULA to deliver one final Delta 2 rocket for KSC exhibit

This was a big year for space. The coronavirus turned plans upside down but the mission-driven space industry and its government customers accomplished remarkable feats, many of which were highlighted in our annual SpaceNews awards issue

In the national security arena, the pandemic shifted most of the government to telework. Agencies were still able to move programs forward and keep the industrial base afloat. The Pentagon, which depends on the private sector for the development and production of space systems, made sure cash flowed to contractors and sped up contract awards to space companies facing a drought in venture capital funding.

This also was the first year of the U.S. Space Force. Despite restrictions on travel and meetings, the new branch of the military pushed on with the organization of the headquarters, field commands and transfers of Air Force personnel. Much still remains to be done as the service begins its second year under a Biden administration that may not be as enthusiastic about Space Force as Trump has been. 

Here's a look back at some of the 2020 storylines that likely will shape national security space in 2021 and beyond:

United Launch Alliance and SpaceX cement their hold on the national security launch market. After spending a year evaluating proposals, the Air Force, to no surprise, stuck with its two incumbent launch providers ULA and SpaceX for the next phase of the National Security Space Launch program from 2022 to 2027. Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman put up a good fight but their bids from day one were viewed as long shots. In 2020, ULA launched four NSSL missions and SpaceX two, all during the pandemic. Only one NSSL small launch mission flew in 2020, on a Northrop Grumman rocket. What to watch in 2021: Can ULA deliver on its plan to fly the new Vulcan launch vehicle before year's end?

The Space Development Agency grabs the industry's attention. A relatively unknown Pentagon agency stood up just 18 months ago sent a message to the space industry that defense procurement can be nimble when it wants to be. SDA laid out plans to deploy 28 satellites in low-Earth orbit in 2022 as the starting point of a much larger constellation. In 2020 the agency selected vendors to produce 20 data communications and eight missile-tracking satellites. Alas the missile-tracking satellite procurement ground to a halt this month after Airbus and Raytheon protested the SDA contract awards made to L3Harris and SpaceX. SDA expects the problem to get sorted out soon and for satellite deployments to stay on schedule but that seems ambitious. What to watch in 2021: How this protest gets resolved — and what the outcome says about the SDA's ability to disrupt military satellite procurement by selecting a nontraditional vendor like SpaceX in a market dominated by traditional defense contractors. 

Small satellites gain traction in the defense market. DoD and the intelligence community in 2020 talked up the idea of a "hybrid space architecture." That means the government would continue to build expensive dedicated satellites but also use smaller and cheaper satellites to make space-based services more resilient to disruptions or hostile attacks. The Space Development Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Space and Missile Systems Center are all in various stages of developing and testing capabilities based on small satellites. What to watch in 2021: SDA's and DARPA's progress with their low-Earth orbit demonstrations and whether SMC starts to move the hybrid space architecture from Powerpoint charts to actual programs.

The pandemic creates newfound appreciation for the role of government. When venture capitalists pulled back in 2020, DoD and NASA contracts became a lifeline for many space companies. By the same token, the crisis made government space buyers more aware of their dependence on commercially funded innovation. One topic frequently discussed this year at industry conferences, mostly via Zoom, was the need for public-private partnerships and for a continuation of efforts by the Pentagon and NASA to nurture startups that have promising technologies. What to watch in 2021: The Space Force is making efforts to open the door to new entrants but it remains to be seen if emerging commercial vendors can transition from developing prototypes to winning larger military procurements. 

Here's to a safe and happy New Year!

United Launch Alliance in 2021 will deliver one final Delta 2 rocket to be exhibited at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The final flight of the Delta 2 was on Sept. 15, 2018, when it launched a NASA Earth science mission from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. In this photo, a Delta 2 rocket prepares to lift off March 6, 2009, carrying NASA's Kepler mission from Space Launch Complex 17-B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: United Launch Alliance


The Space Force this coming year will face renewed pressure to get its acquisition house in order. Congress in the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act directs the Department of the Air Force to report back by May 15 with recommendations "specifically tailored for space systems acquisition" for making programs move faster, improving coordination across agencies, and using commercial capabilities and services as much as possible.

U.S. Army space operations officer Lt. Col. Brad Townsend argues that the Space Force plays an important role defending and managing military space assets but other branches of the armed forces nevertheless need their own space personnel and resources. 

An agreement announced Dec. 24 between the United Kingdom and the European Union will allow the UK to remain in the Copernicus Earth observation program after it formally exits the EU. The UK was facing a Jan. 1 deadline to complete a deal governing its relationship with the EU on issues such as trade, law enforcement and participation in EU-led programs.

Capt. Cole Cupit, a U.S. Army space operations officer, spent a year at SpaceX as a military fellow. "It was a great experience to be able to see the civilian space world and corporate America, and to see where it aligns with the military space world," Cupit said in a Dec. 23 Army news release. Cupit works for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command's Space and Missile Defense Center of Excellence. Credit: U.S. Army SMDC

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

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