The Space Force news this week is big — beginning with the hugely–hyped launch of the megacorporation SpaceX’s gargantuan Starship rocket which ended in titanic fashion. And for most of the workweek, the biggest names in the space industry, private– and public sector, turned out for the 38th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs to drop lots of information, news and straight dope, particularly on the dynamic space operations on tap at the USSF, SPACECOM, SpOC, the AFRL and seemingly everywhere. Read up on all the big news in Space Force happenings right here…
SpaceX Starship undergoes “rapid unscheduled disassembly” after launch
To much hype and fanfare, the SpaceX Starship launched as scheduled from the SpaceX Starbase near Brownsville, Texas, on Thursday, April 20. The Starship instantly went down in history as the largest–ever launch vehicle to lift off, at some 11 million pounds in mass and a potential payload of over 500,000 pounds. Unofficially, Starship is certainly the most complex as well, with 33 separate engines driving the vehicle.
Fortunately this was only a test launch, as about three minutes into flight, the stage separation sequence failed…
SpaceX public relations got to work at warp speed in explaining to the casual observer that the test flight was successful enough and simply part of the process of developing such technology. However, clearly the framing of this particular contingency was overthought by someone in damage control. Directly after Starship’s ignoble end by self–destruct, the SpaceX account tweeted:
Naturally, the term “rapid unscheduled assembly” was subjected to all the justifiable derision that social media could muster. The unfortunate result of such unintentional(?) silliness may be seen in one response:
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released an official statement within hours which chalked the explosion to a malfunction in the Automated Flight Termination System. SpaceX officials later gave more details, stating that several of the rocket’s 33 Raptor engines failed to fire up as planned. In addition, at the three–minute mark, the upper stage and Super Heavy booster failed to separate.
The flight was the culmination of designs first begun in 2016 which were furthered along by a cooperative research–and–development agreement reached with US Transportation Command in 2020. Starship development and testing also falls under the auspices of Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) plans for its Rocket Cargo system.
Space Force and other military officials were quick to come to SpaceX’s defense (so to speak) as well. From the below–detailed Space Symposium, intelligence tech news outlet C4ISRnet quoted Space Launch Delta 45 vice commander for operations Col. Mark Shoemaker as stating that “They will say they were successful, and I would agree. I’m sure they learned a lot from that.”
This sentiment was echoed by Col. Jim Horne, USSF Assured Access to Space Directorate deputy director of operations: “I think that’s one of my favorite things that companies like [SpaceX] have done is teach us that we need to learn from our mistakes and not fear them. Take acceptable risk, learn from it and move on. They’ve proven that you can accelerate innovation.” Sources: YouTube, Twitter, C4ISRnet, Florida Today.
Space Force top brass turns out for Space Symposium
The 38th annual Space Symposium, hosted by the Space Foundation, was held this week in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In total, some 14,000 attendees experienced some 230 commercial and military exhibits from 40 nations, along with over 260 speakers on an inestimable variety of topics. The USSF was well–represented at the event.
Naturally, USSF Commander of Space Operations (CSO) Gen. Chance Saltzman was on hand to deliver opening remarks in which he warned on the mushrooming threats to US supremacy in space technology, specifically relating to recent leaks showing advances in Chinese tech.
Saltzman certainly got more attention from the public sphere from his appearance on the CNBC program Closing Bell: Overtime on Monday, April 16, in which he reiterated in part that “The threats that we face to our on– orbit capabilities from our strategic competitors [have] grown substantially. The congestion we’re seeing in space with tracked objects and the number of satellite payloads, and just the launches themselves, have grown at an exponential rate. I want to make sure that we are thinking about our processes and procedures differently.”
The keynote address was delivered by Space Operations Command (SpOC) commander, Lt General Stephen N. Whiting. Entitled “The Way We Win,” Whiting’s talk reflected the recurring theme of the intense newfound competition in the space domain.
“We win by not fighting, but we must do so while ensuring our interests are secured in space,” said Whiting. “We in the Space Force have a duty to provide space effects to the Joint Force through all levels of conflict and in the face of the threats we now find arrayed against us…
“[At SpOC, w]e have a moral responsibility to work together as a force package projecting military supremacy in, from and to space to deliver critical space capabilities which are vital to our way of life.” Putting things more succinctly in a media briefing,
“So, for us the way we win [is] number one, we have to be intelligence–led, given the threats we now see on orbit and in the domain, ground–based threats that also threaten our space systems. Everything we do in Space Operations Command must be done relative to that threat and so we have to have a robust intelligence enterprise well integrated with our operating forces that explains that threat to us.”
Whiting also commented to media on last week’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) report excoriating the Space Force for its outdated Satellite Control Network (SCN) first established in 1959. Whiting defended the SCN as a “venerable network that’s been around for decades and is doing fantastic work for us today,” but that the GAO’s assessment was more or less correct. Regardless, said Whiting, “There’s a plethora of various antenna capabilities that we can use.”
At the Space Warfighters Luncheon on Wednesday, April 19, US Space Command (SPACECOM) deputy commander Lt. Gen. John Shaw plugged the USSF’s “dynamic space operations” in–domain platforms, a conjunction of military, civilian and commercial sectors which is envisioned for early operability by 2026.
”Our modern space environment demands these types of advancements. We do not sustain maneuver in the space domain very well today. We need to find a way to do that, to get to the point where I don’t have to plan out my fuel for satellites.”
He further compared the current situation in the space domain to that of the nautical domain 90 years ago: “In the 1930s, they realized, if we’re going against a peer adversary, we’re going to have to be able to move quickly: In order to be able to do continuous, sustained maneuvers in the maritime domain, you need to be able to replenish your diesel at sea.
“It allows you to achieve surprise against your enemy, come in close contact near your enemy, and outmaneuver your enemy,” he said.
The idea of tactically responsive space capability was delved into detail by the Space Response panel held on the last day of the Symposium. “The ultimate goal for us is to get to an enduring [tactically responsive space] capability by the 2025 or 2026 timeframe,” said Lt. Col. MacKenzie Birchenough of the SSC. Said capability Birchenough defined as that “to rapidly respond to on–orbit needs on operationally relevant timelines.” Continued Birchenough, “As far as the specific needs, we kind of look at two different missions. The first is the ability to rapidly respond to any kind of on– orbit threats. And then the second is, if any of our current assets on orbit were to be degraded or destroyed, having the ability to augment that capability on a very short timeline.”
Northrop Grumman space launch vehicles business unit director Kurt Eberly added that various approaches are being considered to even achieve an agreed–upon idea of tactically responsive capability: “I think now’s the time where we need to figure out what is tactically responsive space, and I don’t think there’s a clear consensus.”
Further, “I think there’s a huge trade space here and I’m excited that we’re doing these demos. I think in a couple years, you’re going to have a program and say, ‘This is the capability we need, we can define it and write down the requirements,’ and that will allow industry to say, ‘OK, we can respond. We can meet this mission.’”
The next test for the USSF in the tactically responsive space milieu is the Victus Nox mission set to take place some time in 2023, a mission which will call for Boeing subsidiary Millennium Space to deliver a satellite and prep it for launch aboard a Firefly rocket within 60 hours.
Finally, a trio of agreements were reached with partnering nations during the Space Symposium and were announced on Thursday, April 20.
First up was the announcement of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Australian Defence Space Command. Signed by SPACECOM head Gen. James Dickinson and Austaralian Defence Space Command commander AAF Vice–Marshal Catherine Roberts, the MoU calls to “deepen military cooperation in the space domain.”
A joint statement read in part that “Through these cooperative efforts, the U.S. and Australia will continue to improve coordination and interoperability to maintain freedom of action in space, optimize resources, and enhance mission assurance and resilience.”
Dickinson went on to make official an agreement between SPACECOM and Italy’s Defense General Staff to assign an Italian liaison office to SPACECOM. Signing for Italian defense was IAF Brig. Gen. Davide Cipelletti.
“In order to strengthen the U.S.–Italian military partnership in the space domain, the liaison officer will provide Italian armed forces expertise and insights to U.S. Space Command, facilitate communications among Italian and U.S. space units, support U.S.– Italy space–related partnership opportunities, and perform tasks that are mutually beneficial for the U.S.– Italian defense cooperation,” stated SPACECOM officials.
“The Italian liaison officer will serve as the national representative for all aspects of U.S.–Italy cooperation with regard to the military use of space, and share insight and recommendations to improve bilateral and multilateral relationships.”
Finally, Dickinson officially entered SPACECOM into a space–situational awareness data–sharing agreement with the Peruvian National Commission on Aerospace Research and Development (CONIDA) and the Peruvian Air Force. Signing alongside Dickinson was PAF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Carlos Enrique ChÃ¡vez Cateriano and CONIDA director Maj. Gen. JosÃ© Antonio GarcÃa Morgan.
SPACECOM PR described the data sharing program as “enhance[ing] the safety, stability, security, and sustainability of spaceflight for all.” Sources: Space Symposium official website, YouTube, Marca, Sat News, SpOC official website, Space News (2x), Defense Daily, Breaking Defense.
Astra Space wins contract for Rocket 4
Officials of Astra Space Inc. announced on Friday, April 21, their company’s win of a $11.5 million USSF Orbital Services Program 4 (OSP–4) launch task order.
“The Space Force deliberately structured the OSP–4 contract to leverage emerging launch solutions for mission partners like the DoD Space Test Program,” said Lt. Col. Justin Beltz, chief of Space Systems Command (SSC) Small Launch & Targets Division. “Today’s award reflects the tremendous promise industry is bringing to the table with systems like Rocket 4. We look forward to working with Astra to make this launch a success.”
The STP–S29B mission for which the Astra Rocket 4 has been commissioned is a Category 2 Mission Assurance launch, which will entail substantial efforts from Astra in tandem with the Government team and its independent mission assurance contractors to support a mission designed for success. “STP–S29B demands a higher level of mission assurance than previous Astra launches and therefore represents a significant increase in Astra’s coordination with the Space Force to perform a launch designed for mission success,” said Dr. Thomas Williams, a senior director at Astra. “Astra’s ability to compete for this mission was based on the tremendous work that our team has done to design a repeatably reliable Rocket 4 and our previous experience successfully delivering multi–manifest missions to their desired orbits.”
Astra Space last attempted a launch for the USSF in February 2022, but that rocket exploded — or “rapidly unscheduled dissembled,” as SpaceX might have it — after liftoff, destroying the payload of four Cubesats aboard. Sources: Astra Space PR, Click Orlando.