LOS ANGELES --– When SpaceX successfully completed its most recent Department of Defense National Security Space Launch mission, it not only placed the third GPS III satellite into orbit, it also helped the Defense Contract Management Agency and the U.S. Space Force get closer to proving a money-saving concept.
“The GPS III three launch was the first time in history that we allowed the launch service provider on contract to return a rocket. That’s never happened before,” said Air Force Maj. Raymond Rylander, program integrator for DCMA Los Angeles who oversees the SpaceX contract.
The recovery of the first stage booster shortly after launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, June 30, demonstrated to the DoD that the company’s processes and technology could help customers save money on future launches. While the exact cost savings is yet to be determined, the recently recovered booster validates the process that DCMA will oversee to secure any credit applied to future NSSL launches.
The milestone places DCMA LA as the lead team for the development of acquisition oversight on rocket recovery and reuse guidelines that will bolster the NSSL’s goals of procuring affordable space-launch services.
The NSSL, previously known as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, still solicits proposals from launch service providers who use expendable rockets, but the National Defense Authorizations Act of 2019 formalized the use of contractors who could recover and reuse rockets. As a result, Rylander and his DCMA LA team have been working with USSF’s Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, California to shape the program’s acquisition guidelines.
“DCMA LA, SMC and SpaceX are taking an incremental approach to see if the reuse and cost savings concept can succeed, but much of the negotiating and the acquisition oversight for the recovery and reuse of the boosters is established,” said Rylander.
While companies like SpaceX have flown reused rocket booster hardware before, in order for the DoD to subscribe to the practice long term, said Rylander. DCMA LA and NSSL mission partners, like the USSF’s SMC, need to see the process unfold under their close watch.
At the contractor’s facility in Hawthorne, California, Air Force Capt. Alexander Thomas, deputy program integrator for the SpaceX contract, works with DCMA multi-functional experts, who he said have been key to the development of the acquisition oversight.
“This has broadened the scope of our work significantly,” said Thomas. “We’re no longer buying a rocket but instead we’re buying a ride.”
While Thomas said this new strategy has the potential to decrease mission costs and wait times between launches, it comes with increased mission complexity.
“The launch for GPS III-3 was great. It went very well because not only did we successfully have a successful payload reaching the correct orbit, but we also had that booster landing,” he said. “Now comes the job of taking it apart, seeing what the damage is to the vehicle and looking at what the reusability factors would be. That’s where this whole new era of setting up procedures and steps for analyzing these vehicles and asking, ‘hey can we refurbish and reuse these vehicles?”
Thomas said that while the reusability concept is in its infancy for the DoD there may be a time when the only limiting factors for launch frequency will be weather and the time it takes to build a payload.
“When it comes to the actual launch vehicle itself, I think we’re accelerating at a whole new pace, and it’s pretty awesome to be at the forefront of that.”