As this year's National Space Symposium kicks off in Colorado Springs, Colorado, expect much of the focus to be on the ongoing fight for military space launch. With SpaceX expecting certification by June and legacy launch provider United Launch Alliance (ULA) preparing to unveil a new launch vehicle design, the competition between the two companies remains fierce.

US Air Force Secretary of the Air ForceDeborah Lee James will be making her Space Ssymposium debut this year, with a keynote speech at the show on April 16. She sat down with Defense News in March to discuss the current state of US military space launch.

Q. There seems to be confusion about language in last year's National Defense Authorization Act prohibiting the use of the Russian-built RD-180 engine. What is your understanding of that language?

A. We are totally on board with getting off of the reliance on the RD-180. The law as written says words to the effect — and I am paraphrasing here — that as of 2019, we cannot use that RD-180 for our launches, but there are certain carve-outs to that. We can use RD-180s as necessary on the block buy. [Another is] we are looking to do competitive launches, and so we are only allowed to use RD-180s in that competitive environment if they were fully purchased, paid for and bought before the date of the invasion by Russia of the Crimea. There is a limited number of RD-180s that fit that criteria.

So what this means is, although we all want a full and open competition by that point, there may not be enough of these engines that actually could be competitive. Therein lies the rub.

Q. This seems like a problem the new engine capability could fix, but you have expressed doubts it will be ready by 2019.

A. ULA is beginning to invest, and of course we have a strategy to also invest in, a new engine capability. But will it be ready by the year 2019? I have questions about this. I think it is very aggressive to expect that.

The experts with whom I have spoken tell me that anywhere from six to eight years is what we should expect for the development of a new engine, and then one to two years additional time for integration, certification and some other factors. So it is a lengthy period of time and I add up all of those numbers and I think 2019 is extremely aggressive. We are going to do our best, we are going to work towards that. It is the law of the land. But that is where we are.

Q. There is interest in the House on changing that language to allow more use of the RD-180. Does the Air Force support that move?

A. I would welcome clarification. If this is what Congress intended, then that is fine. But it appears, at least, that wasn't the intent of those members of Congress who were involved with the drafting of the language.

What we all want is a good competition, and so what we need to do is put our heads together and figure out what is the best way forward to make sure we have that good competition.

Q. Would you consider asking Congress not just to clarify the language, but to modify it to allow more RD-180 procurement?

A. I don't see such a proposal coming out of the Department of Defense, but we welcome the opportunity to sit down with Congress and put our heads together on what is the best way to assure our goal is met, and the top goal is competition.

Of course, the other top goal is mission assurance. We don't want competition just for the sake of competition. We want it to drive down costs, but we also need to make sure that these precious satellites that are doing very important both military and civilian work for us are able to be launched safely and reliably.

Q. If that language is not changed, and ULA goes ahead with plans to retire its Delta IV Medium, it could leave SpaceX's Falcon 9 as the only Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) option. Is that a concern for you?

A. If there isn't a competitive domestic solution to compete with SpaceX, then I think in effect it would be a monopoly. At least, that is logically the way I am looking at it. If we're willing to accept that as a country, if that is going to meet our goals and our needs, so be it.

But my belief, and what I have been talking about ever since I took office, is we want competition in space. That wouldn't be a competition. None of us are satisfied with the existing monopoly that ULA holds. We have been trying to get beyond that. So it would seem counterintuitive to me that we would all collectively be OK with trading one monopoly with another.

Q. How do you envision a public-private partnership working out on the development of a next-generation launch engine?

A. I believe — and really, we all believe — that it is important before you launch upon a brand new government program to gather some facts and build a strategy, then begin to fund elements of that strategy, and that is exactly what we spent the year of 2014 doing. The year of 2015 will be a year to refine and launch the next stages of the strategy.

The next step of the strategy is we want to be able to fund several launch providers who would then be directed to develop engine alternatives. They would need to make sure that their alternative could be used by other companies who would perhaps wish to buy that in the future. Step three would be that once we have funded several of these efforts, we would then try to neck down to one or two launch systems which would include the engine and the vehicle, and then we would also have to begin to get them certified. Then the final step would be to award the launches in a competitive environment. We are expecting the RFP [request for proposal] on step two later this year, and then steps three and four would be in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 timeframe, somewhere in there.

Q. Should we expect other companies besides ULA and SpaceX to apply for work under that RFP?

A. Of course, we don't know until we put the RFP out to see who responds, but I can tell you based on the [request for information] that we put out in 2014 there did seem to be other companies who were exhibiting interest in this. So of course, we will see.

Q. What are your thoughts on disaggregation as a space strategy going forward?

A. I am very interested in disaggregation. It is a subset of the larger topic of resilience. Our top job in the Air Force is to make sure that we promote the responsible use of space for all responsible space-faring nations, which includes a number of elements, not the least of which is stay away from actions which create debris because debris threatens all of us.

Number two is we have to defend our assets in space. We have to deter any aggressions or actions against our assets in space and protect ourselves. These are two top elements of strategy, and part of that means we need to make sure that we're resilient.

There are a number of elements to that, disaggregation being one of them. Perhaps we can have a greater number of smaller satellites which may have fewer capabilities, but is a wider group of targets rather than just a handful of a few targets, so that is the basic idea. We have been seeing a trend in recent years towards smaller satellites. The question is, will we continue that trend? I'm very interested in it, so a number of us are going to be working on that over the next year.

Q. What are you hoping to convey to industry partners during your time at the symposium?

A. The big picture message is the importance of space overall, not only to our national security but to our way of life as we know it. There are very important uses of space for the financial industry, for the farming industry, transportation and the like.

Number two is the fact that unlike in years past, today's space environment is contested, it is congested and it is competitive. There are a lot of countries in space these days. Not all of them necessarily mean us well. In addition to that, debris is an issue for everybody, so responsible use of space will also be a key element of my message.

Third, the importance of partnerships — and this is where industry comes in. This is where our international relationships come in as well. I'll be talking about the importance of those partnerships and expressing our gratitude for their excellent work on our behalf. I'll also be carrying forth the message that cost effectiveness is important for everything that we do, so make every dollar count.

Q. International cooperation for military space has expanded in recent years, including foreign nations buying into the WGS constellation. Is that a formula you want to see expanded?

A. I would love to grow that formula. That has been very successful for us, so we'd love to see that approach grow. We're on the hunt for [other programs].

By Aaron Mehta in Washington.