Department of Defense leaders are warning that the domestic small launch market is particularly vulnerable to the ongoing financial difficulties caused by the COVID-19 situation, and the U.S. Space Force wants to know how it can support the burgeoning sector.

“Small launch is another area where we have a lot of concerns with the government’s steady demand via our small launch program," said Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and U.S. Space Force Service Acquisition Executive Will Roper at a media availability April 29. “That’s a program that is extremely innovative and blazing new territory for how future companies could be able to put satellites up on demand. Obviously very useful for the military, for the Space Force, but also very useful for the large proliferated low earth orbit constellations that are expected to emerge and will be put up by the large launch providers.”

“It’s a market that’s at risk. We’re very focused on trying to get awards done quickly," he added. "But we need to do more to stabilize this important market that is going to continue US leadership in space both militarily and commercially.”

And on April 20, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord warned that the small space launch was one of three sectors the Pentagon was most worried about.

The Space and Missile Systems Center elaborated on the Pentagon’s concerns in a statement to C4ISRNET.

“There is concern that the current financial and market constraints resulting from the COVID-19 have reduced funding sources necessary to continue development and operations for the nascent small launch industry,” said Col. Rob Bongiovi, director of SMC Launch Enterprise. “Much of the industry have limited flight capability or are in the critical transition from development to flight and this funding restriction may prevent or delay these systems. The Space and Missile Systems Center is evaluating the impacts to the small launch industrial base to consider actions to enable a robust U.S. launch industrial base.”

The small launch sector’s reliance on venture funding leaves them particularly vulnerable at this moment said Carissa Christensen, CEO of Bryce Technology, an analytics and engineering firm.

“The biggest challenge is for companies who are ready for their next cash infusion and may be facing a venture community that’s being more risk averse than normal. There are quite a few start-up launch companies—dozens and dozens of start-up launch companies—that are in the very early stages, and I think there’s a good deal of vulnerability there," she noted during an Aviation Week Network webinar April 30.

Space Force considering options to support industry

To better understand the evolving situation, the Space Force Acquisition Council held an emergency meeting with representatives from the U.S. Space Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Space Development Agency and others.

“What we wanted to do in this emergency session is to put our thoughts on the table about what we’re seeing in the space industrial base," said Roper. "Yes, it has been hit hard due to reliance on private investment, those markets have become conservative. I think they’re looking for the government to take a leading role and say what’s going to be important in the long term. I think there’s fear that we may fall into near term thinking and not maintain those critical follow-on or emerging markets like space launch or small space launch that we discussed earlier.”

The Space Force Acquisition Council is putting out a detailed survey to industry through the Space Enterprise Consortium to look at the effects of COVID-19 on the space economy and steps DoD can take, including stimulus funding for small space vehicles.

According to a press release, the survey is focused on three broad areas of concern:

  • Emerging supply chain, cleared workforce, and markets under immediate distress
  • Real bills caused by COVID-19 with the goal of minimizing existing program schedule risks
  • Stimulus: Small space vehicles, micro-electronics and other key areas for long-term sustainment

"The COVID crisis must not undermine critical space industries,” said Gen. Jay Raymond, U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations. “Given the threat to space capabilities posed by potential adversaries, we need to ensure the U.S. space industrial base remains strong — the best in the world at developing national security space systems.”

Of immediate concern to the council is the plight of small launch providers, along with the commercial satellite communications sector and the micro-electronics sector.

“I think this crisis will challenge the system in the future and it will help make US governments, particularly the Air Force and Space Force, better partners in commercial innovation. What we need to do now is to engage the broader whole of government to make sure that we’re not waiting on those changes beyond COVID-19, that we’re having the discussion right now with companies that need us to think about that bigger picture and do it right now because of the impacts that its having on them," said Roper.

Small Satellite market seeks bailout

And the effects of COVID-19 may be having a major impact on the larger small satellite sector. As Christensen noted, space start-ups could be particularly vulnerable right now due to their reliance on venture funding.

“Start-up space companies—venture-funded companies—are high risk ventures. Many of them fail. That’s the nature of venture-funded firms. My expectation is what we’ll see is an acceleration of failures or of business stressers that would have taken longer at this time,” she explained.

“Really, the most impactful thing the government can do is actually go out and buy services from these start-ups. Then the start-ups can use (that) to go back to their investors and say, ‘See? There is a use case for this. The government is going to be a big player in the future for us,’” added Josh Brost, VP of government affairs for Relativity Space, during the Aviation Week Network webinar. “Other things like loans or direct investments in technology may help bridge the gap for a few months, but those are kind of short-term band-aids”

And as first reported by SpaceNews, the SmallSat Alliance is asking DoD and the intelligence community for stimulus funding to replace commercial investment, which it claims has been significantly reduced during the COVID-19 situation. The group, which represents a number of manufacturers, operators, analytics contractors and launch providers, is seeking more than hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding for a broad swath of the small satellite community.

The groups recommendations include:

  • $150M to the Air Force Research Lab for critical technology infrastructure to support the Hybrid Space Architecture.
  • $125M to the NRO Commercial Systems Program Office to support shareable commercial smallsat remote sensing data.
  • $40M to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for commercial analytic products.
  • $500M for new space products and services, such as small responsive launch services, commercial space domain awareness, and space robotics and servicing.

“The COVID-19 crisis is creating new, profound market challenges, potentially driving US new space companies into bankruptcy or into the hands of predatory foreign government backed investors,” the SmallSat Alliance claims.

The group asks that funds be executed within weeks if possible, utilizing rapid acquisition approaches.

National security small launch sector making progress before COVID-19

2020 started out as a breakout year for small launch contracts, with both the National Reconnaissance Office and SMC utilizing new acquisition vehicles designed to leverage the burgeoning commercial small launch sector.

On April 13, SMC issued its first task order under Orbital Services Program-4 OSP-4—an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract awarded to eight companies by SMC in October—is a new acquisition vehicle designed by DoD to leverage the commercial small launch market to put government payloads on orbit. The Air Force said it expected to use OSP-4 to launch 20 missions over a nine-year period.

That first $35 million task order went to VOX Space, a wholly owned subsidiary of Virgin Orbit, who will launch 44 technology demonstrator small satellites with their LauncherOne rockets in 2021.

The National Reconnaissance Office, the agency charged with acquiring and operating America’s intelligence satellites, has also begun using a new contract vehicle to take advantage of the small launch market.

In January, Rocket Lab launched the first NRO payload from New Zealand under the Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract. However, a second NRO/Rocket Lab launch scheduled for March 30 was delayed when New Zealand shut down most business activities to slow the spread of COVID-19.

NRO Director Christopher Scolese said he is working with DoD space elements to support the launch sector and other parts of the space economy.

“Assured access to space coupled with a strong space industrial base are fundamental to our national security. The National Reconnaissance Office is committed to working with the Space Acquisition Council and with the U.S. Space Force to ensure the stability of the space sector,” said Scolese in an April 29 statement.

While the New Zealand launch has yet to be rescheduled, Rocket Lab is moving forward with preparations for its first domestic launch slated for this summer. On April 29, the company announced it had rolled out its Electron rocket to the Launch Complex 2 pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Virginia for the first time—a major milestone for the company. Of course, those activities took place before Virginia issued orders closing non-essential businesses. That mission will launch a single Air Force Research Laboratory micro-sat that will be used to determine the ability of small satellites to support large aperture payloads with space weather monitoring.

At the same time, at least one Space Force launch has been delayed due to COVID-19. The Space Force pushed back the launch of a GPS III satellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket slated for April 29 due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

“We do not make this decision lightly, however, given our GPS constellation remains strong, we have the opportunity to make a deliberate decision to maintain our mission assurance posture, without introducing additional health risk to personnel or mission risk to the launch,” said Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, the head of SMC and the program executive officer for space, at the time. “As the COVID-19 pandemic is a threat to national security, likewise, rescheduling the launch is in the interest of national security.”

However, SMC confirmed to C4ISRNET that the secretive X-37B space plane is still on track for a May 16 launch by United Launch Alliance.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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