Aerospace Helps Air Force Assess Commercial Launchers

Aerospace Helps Air Force Assess Commercial Launchers

Commercial launch companies have begun vying to launch national security payloads. Photograph courtesy of SpaceX/Chris Thompson.

The countdown has started.

Commercial launch companies, including California-based SpaceX, are getting ready to carry national security space payloads, and Aerospace’s involvement in this process has already begun.

The Alternative Launch Vehicles (ALV) Department, created less than two years ago in the Launch Systems Division of Space Launch Operations, is responsible for coordinating Aerospace support to the assessment of potential alternative providers of launch services to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

“Basically, the Air Force wants to stand up more competition,” said Akhil Gujral, systems director for the ALV department. “The ultimate goal is to lower the cost of launch vehicles.”

In November, the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) published the United States Air Force Launch Services New Entrant Certification Guide (NECG).

According to SMC, the NECG “lays out the approach the Air Force will use to certify commercial launch companies to provide launch services for Department of Defense National Security Space missions.”

Aerospace is working for the Air Force, providing technical analysis to determine if the commercial companies and their launch vehicles meet the criteria outlined in the guide. The ALV department heads up this effort, drawing on the resources of ETG and other groups within Aerospace.

Commercial companies that are interested in entering this arena must first submit a statement of intent. Then the companies must meet the criteria listed in the guide — technical requirements, such as demonstrating that a launch vehicle can lift a certain payload mass to a certain orbit, for example.

Once they have met all the criteria, they will be certified by the Air Force, and able to compete to launch government payloads.

“Technical certification of new entrants strengthens the launch vehicle industrial base and expands the portfolio of launch vehicles available,” Gujral said.

Several companies have already expressed interest in this process. An Industry Day was held at LAAFB on Dec. 1, and was attended by ATK, SpaceX, Orbital, and Lockheed Martin. SpaceX is expected to be the first to submit a statement of intent, probably in the next month.

As the new entrants work to become certified, Aerospace will assess their adherence to Air Force standards, as listed in the guide. The goal is to take advantage of the commercial companies’ strengths, while making sure that they meet the technical criteria necessary for these important payloads.

“We will leverage the process improvements and new ways of doing business that the new entrants bring while meeting mission assurance and reliability requirements,” Gujral said.

“It’s a great field,” Gujral continued. “The bottom line is, by having alternate launch vehicles certified, you allow more competition, which in turn should lower the cost for the government and to the taxpayer.”

—Laura Johnson