COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The injection of competition into the US space launch market is bringing with it new infrastructure and planning challenges, according to the Air Force's top space official.
Gen. John Hyten, the head of US Air Force Space Command, told an audience at the National Space Symposium audience Tuesday that the service is grappling with questions it never had to before because of the changing space launch environment.
Making his first keynote at the Symposium since taking over for now retired Gen. William Shelton, Hyten said the aging launch infrastructure is now longer capable of keeping up with a world in which SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance are each sending multiple missions into space at a higher pace.
"Our ranges are structured today not to support this kind of business — they're old, they're creaky," Hyten said. "The fact [Cape Canaveral] is going to get as much as 40 launches this year is remarkable. They have about maxed out their capability on the range."
Because of that, Hyten announced, he was ordering the development of an automated flight safety system, which would streamline launch processes and allow a greater volume of launches.
To up the ante, Hyten wants it developed, approved and installed next year while Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, undergoes construction. And because that is an admittedly ambitious goal, Hyten is putting out a call to industry for help.
"If an industry partner wants to come in with an automated flight safety system and get it certified before then, we will work with them to get it certified so it can fly with that," he said. "We're going to work with all of the industry partners to develop that automated flight safety system. That's something we have to do."
A more hypothetical issue raised by the new launch environment is the question of what happens in the case of launch vehicle failure with a military payload aboard. While that hasn't happened with a military payload aboard in some time, Hyten warned that last year's failed Orbital ATK Antares launch shows that it is just a matter of when, not if, a disaster occurs.
In the past, Hyten pointed out, a launch failure would cause the provider to be shut down for however long it took to find the issue and make sure it was corrected. But in a competitive market, having one competitor shut down for as much as two years while investigators work, could spell the death of that company.
"If something goes wrong, what do you have to do to return to fly in this environment and who makes that decision? Because I'm not going to stand up and put a billion dollar satellite on top of a rocket I don't know is going to work," Hyten explained. "And if that's the case, then that company, which is now on a very busy launch schedule, is now down. How do they stay in business with the other competitor now launching and launching?
"I don't know how to do that yet," Hyten said, noting he needs to talk with industry partners to find a solution. "That's the one element I don't know."
One of those industry partners is Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX. In a Wednesday interview with Defense News, she acknowledged there is no easy answer to the industrial base part of that equation, but offered some thoughts on how to handle a post-disaster scenario.
"There's contractual ways to address his concern," she said, such as building "into my national security contract that they get to see two success before I fly again, and maybe there are penalties if there is delays associated with that."
Shotwell added that she hopes to start addressing this concern in her next meeting with Hyten.