Funding sought for more ‘responsive’ satellite launches

Bipartisan group of representatives wants $150 million to launch satellites from aircraft

Nevada Democrat Steven Horsford is among the representatives pressing to fund a new method of launching satellites. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Nevada Democrat Steven Horsford is among the representatives pressing to fund a new method of launching satellites. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 26, 2022 at 6:40pm

A bipartisan group of 25 House members is pressing appropriators to boost funding for a Defense Department program aimed at more rapidly launching satellites and making the broader space enterprise more agile. 

The vision of the so-called tactically responsive space program is for now about deploying satellites into space more rapidly than a traditional launch.

Instead of taking off from fixed spaceports, only in fair weather and only after long preparation, the idea, which is already being demonstrated, is to launch satellite-bearing rockets from aircraft.

Satellites can be launched in this way regardless of weather and off any long runway, a more practical and less predictable process for America’s adversaries to spy on or attack, proponents say. And the faster rate at which satellites can be put in orbit or repaired or upgraded in space, the more capable America’s space assets will be.

Bipartisan push

Supporters of the program are now seeking $150 million for the effort in fiscal 2023. The Defense Department fiscal 2023 budget proposal asked for no money for it. Nor did the Air Force, Space Force or U.S. Space Command on their separate lists of so-called unfunded priorities for fiscal 2023.

“As vividly demonstrated by Russia’s 2021 destructive anti-satellite test, threats to our critical national security space assets continue to increase, both from [an] adversary’s on-orbit and terrestrial counter-space capabilities and from 'space debris,’” the members wrote in the April 26 letter, which has not previously been made public. “However, the United States is not currently positioned with an operational capability to rapidly replace assets in orbit that are degraded, disabled, or destroyed or to rapidly launch satellites for urgent new missions.”

In November, Russia conducted an anti-satellite missile test, destroying one of its own obsolete satellites and creating more than 1,500 pieces of space debris.

The 25 members —17 Democrats and eight Republicans — hail mostly from the Armed Services Committee, and they generally represent states laden with space interests. The drivers of the advocacy effort are Nevada Democrat Steven Horsford and Florida Republican Michael Waltz.

Recent launches

Several defense contractors have conducted such launches in the past few years.

Virgin Orbit National Systems, for example, has performed this mission for both the Pentagon and commercial customers. Three times now, most recently in January, it has released the company’s Launcher One rocket, carrying multiple satellites, from the belly of a 747 and launched it into space, where the rocket then sent the satellites into orbit several hundred miles up. 

Eventually, supporters say, rockets launched in this way could carry equipment to repair satellites that have been attacked or hit by space debris.

Mark Baird, the CEO of Virgin Orbit National Systems, Virgin Orbit’s U.S.-based subsidiary, is a retired two-star Air Force general and former deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office.

In an email to CQ Roll Call, Baird said he is encouraged by widespread bipartisan backing of the program.  

“We’re grateful to see continuing support and leadership endorsement for the responsive space and launch mission areas in the wake of growing threats to U.S. space systems,” Baird said.

Virgin Orbit National Systems is not the only company involved in the market. 

Last June, a Northrop Grumman-built rocket was launched into space off an aircraft made by the Lockheed Martin Corp. Other players include York Space Systems LLC and Capella Space. 

After the Northrop Grumman launch last June, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond said that “agile, responsive capability development, combined with our ability to rapidly launch and insert capabilities into space where we want, when we want, will deny our competitors the perceived benefits of beginning a conflict in, or extending a conflict to, space.”

Congressional adds

U.S. military strategy documents, senior leaders and lawmakers who oversee the Pentagon have lauded the potential of such systems.

But the Pentagon has yet to request funding for them. Congress, though, has nonetheless added to the appropriations bills a total of $84 million over the past three fiscal years combined to get things started.

The program got $50 million in fiscal 2022, $15 million in fiscal 2021 and $19 million in fiscal 2020 — none of it requested.

And now, an advocacy campaign is underway on Capitol Hill to keep that budgetary ball rolling.

The reason the Pentagon has not sought funds is that the service is still developing the overall “architecture” for responsive space systems, a Space Force official said by email Thursday. 

“Requirements and investment are needed across the entire space enterprise,” the official said, “to design, test and field responsive space capabilities for the future.”

That includes, the official said, how the Space Force builds satellites, control systems and rockets, as well as concepts of operations, policies, tactics, techniques and procedures. 

But the 25 lawmakers, in their letter, said $150 million in fiscal 2023 would help move the program beyond a focus on just launch capabilities. And, they said, it would “help ensure that the necessary technologies, requirements, and organizational structure are in place and that the program moves from a developmental to an operational stage at the pace of relevance and need.”