ORLANDO, Fla. — Since its establishment last spring, the U.S. Space Force’s Commercial Space Office has been busy making connections with industry and creating pathways to deliver off-the-shelf capabilities and services to users.
The office is the service’s hub for commercial engagement, overseeing a slew of initiatives, including SpaceWERX — the Space Force’s innovation arm — and Space Systems Command’s Front Door, an online portal companies can use to connect with the acquisition community. It’s also leading the establishment of a Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve, an effort to scale up its use of commercial capabilities during a conflict.
The Commercial Space Office’s creation came amid a push within the Space Force to strengthen its partnership with commercial industry. Officials have called for the acquisition workforce to consider opportunities to buy services and systems from industry — rather than build a bespoke government satellite — wherever possible.
Col. Richard Kniseley, who leads the office, recently sat down with C4ISRNET at the Space Mobility Conference in Orlando, Florida. He talked about the office’s accomplishments over the last year and its priorities for 2024.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What has your office done since its creation last year?
We marched forward with the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve, and stood up that task force with many Department of Defense subject matter experts to really flesh out that framework. That all culminated in a successful briefing to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall around September where he said: “Go forth and prosper.” He considered this good news and a step in the right direction, especially as we’re looking at great power competition.
The SSC Front Door has been meeting with many different industry members every day. This past August, we onboarded a new website and share tool. Since then, we’ve met with over 200 industry members. The goal of that website was to have faster response time, to make sure that we were assessing industry, understanding their maturity levels, and then understanding the mission areas they can play in so that we can get them to the right mission area owner.
Our alignment with SpaceWERX has proved very successful. We aligned a SpaceWERX challenge with one of our first reverse industry days out of the gate, which was alternative positioning, navigation and timing. The goal of that was to seed industry, but also to keep a lot of the conversations going and mature capabilities.
We also awarded, out of the Commercial Satellite Communications Office, the Proliferated Low Earth Orbit contract, which was a $900 million [indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract]. It went out to 20 different vendors and covered many different mission areas. We didn’t want to hone in just on commercial SATCOM, so we opened it up to alternative position, navigation and timing, as well as space domain awareness, to name a few. The goal out of that was to capitalize on dual-use capabilities.
So we are not slowing down in 2024; it is going to be a very busy year, and we’ve already got a number of different things on the horizon.
How do you expect the Proliferated Low Earth Orbit contractor pool to grow? What value will that bring to the Space Force?
While it was awarded to 20 providers, we are onboarding new providers. In fact, we have an onboarding period right now, which ends in May, where new providers can reach out to the Commercial SATCOM Office and be evaluated as a provider on that contract.
It allows the contractors to propose areas where they can benefit the Department of Defense. It’s a very open contract, and it allows us to work and reach out with a lot of those providers. But that contract also allows us to combine a lot of different requirements across the Department of Defense into one award, so that we’re not doing one award, one award, one award. The first task order that got awarded to SpaceX combined requirements from over 70 different agencies.
So it’s the ability to get better pricing and economic order quantity by combining a lot of those requirements. It allows us to get more providers on, understand their capabilities, and get those commercial capabilities out to the warfighter and better integrated across the space enterprise.
The Space Mobility Conference saw a heavy focus on space servicing. What is your office doing in this area? How are you engaging with the companies developing these capabilities?
A great deal of the companies that have been coming through the Front Door that we have been meeting with have been companies aligning themselves with servicing, mobility and logistics. So whether we have companies that are looking at the refueling aspect of it, companies that are looking at the repair aspect of it or even the maneuverability aspect of it — there is a great deal of innovation and expertise in those different areas.
What we’ve been doing is assessing these companies for their maturity level, but also one of the functions of the Front Door is to take a look at the investments in those companies — venture capital and also any potential nefarious capital. We do want to be investing in companies that are on the up and up. But at the same time, we’re also looking at companies where the government can be one of many customers and not just be a crutch to lean on.
We’ve been bridging that gap between the companies and the mission areas. We’ve been introducing a lot of great companies to the Assured Access to Space team — so looking for investment opportunities there as well as working with the Space Systems Integration Office. They are looking at the overall enterprise and where does servicing, mobility and logistics fit into that overall architecture.
You can only imagine what those capabilities will do for the mission because you will be able to refuel some of our [high-value] space vehicles, which allows them to stay on orbit longer and do more mission passes.
Some of the technologies that are coming into play have a lot more size, weight and power so that while they can be carrying space vehicles to many different orbits, these things can also carry gas cans on them. They have more abilities to stay on orbit longer. You can even deploy them, and you don’t even need to use the space vehicles right away; they could just sit there in a loiter state, which kind of lends itself a little bit more to the logistics side of the house. You could save the gas on those space vehicles and have them ready, which also lends itself more to a tactically responsive space standpoint.
What are the most important parts of the Space Force’s upcoming commercial space strategy?
It’s going to do two things. One, it’s going to be a very clear message to the government that because of the threats, we need to change how we do things. Resting on building everything in house is just not palatable anymore. We need to integrate with commercial [sectors] at better scale. It recognizes how the commercial industry is innovating every single day. A lot of the expertise is out there.
What the strategy is also going to do is be a signal to industry of areas of importance to us. We’re not going to prioritize areas, but it will be very clear some of the areas that are very important to the government. Throughout the strategy, there will be kind of a mixture of strategy, but also some implementation. So there’ll be some actions that will be in that strategy, and then it will also be further fleshed out with implementation plans that will be released after the strategy is released.
The Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve, or CASR, framework received approval last fall. How is your office implementing that?
My No. 1 focus is working with [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] and the National Space Council on a threat-sharing model. The Department of Defense has a few of them that we are exploring.
We are working to develop a surveillance plan for CASR membership. That’s really going to lend itself into the reliability construct, ensuring they stay in good standing as a member. Are they still investing in their cyber capabilities? Are they able to surge or adhere to the contract as planned? And even looking at some of their manufacturing capabilities. Once we get you to that membership, we need to make sure you’re ready for what that potential bad day might be.
We’re also integrating right now with tactically responsive space [team]. We want to inject CASR fundamentals and exercises into one of their next capability exercises. I could easily see a scenario of a surging of capability, or even potentially taking space vehicles off a production line for a CASR need. That’s really going to help us exercise the contract and the concept of operations.
We are starting to develop the concept of operations, partnered with U.S. Space Command, primarily looking at commercial satellite communications as the first one. Putting that to paper is going to help us work toward exercises as well. But then after that, it’s really working on securing funding.
When will you start putting companies on contract for CASR?
We’re going to start fleshing out the contract pieces a little bit more this year.
I promised this to industry: We will still have a couple more industry offerings so that I can be completely transparent with them before they start seeing this in contracts. I almost want to get a litmus test from them and make sure that I’m going down the right path, especially as we’re starting to develop our incentive plan.
I’m going to potentially have something this year, but probably 2025.
You previously said it’s important to have a sustained budget line, or program element, for commercial space capabilities, including CASR. Where does that effort stand?
I’m anxiously waiting on the appropriations bill. If all goes well, the appropriations bill could be the mechanism that starts the commercial space program element. There was some language in the Senate Appropriations Committee markup that pretty much allows for the creation of it, and I just want to see if that language makes its way through. Those dollars were specifically targeted at commercial surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking, so that would be a budget activity created under the commercial space piece. We’re waiting to see the outcome of that one.
What other efforts would receive funding under that new budget line?
We’re definitely looking at the funding of some enterprise capabilities, like funding for exercises, funding for threat sharing — all of that.
There will need to be an enduring CASR line in there to keep that overall enterprise together. Some of the biggest feedback we got from industry was that we need to understand what’s going on with the threat. And I totally resonated with that because that’s going to help them be more responsive to our needs. It’s going to help inform their business area. If they’re a CASR member, then that’ll help them indicate when a call-up might be OK.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.