Space

Funding for small launch providers still in question after withdrawal of $116M in contracts

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s top acquisition official hopes money will materialize for small launch providers whose Defense Production Act contracts were withdrawn earlier this month due to a lack of funding.

In mid-June, the Space and Missile Systems Center announced that it would award ride-share contracts to six firms by using funding meant to bolster companies made financially vulnerable by the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the government in early July reversed course, recalling the $116 million designated for small launch providers because of “additional small business needs that were generated,” such as other government loan programs, said Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.

“My hope is that whenever there’s new [Defense Production Act] Title 3 funding or when resource frees up due to other efforts not executing as planned, that those [contracts] are the first to go back into the hopper,” Roper told reporters Tuesday.

“If I were asked today to put in one new Title 3 initiative, it’s small launch because I think it’s going to be an amazing industry base for this country, and if properly influenced, my military mission can be highly disruptive in future war fighting, especially if satellites can be put up in a very responsive way that changes the calculus for holding space assets at risk.”

In the June announcement, SMC stated that Aevum, Astra, X-BOW, Rocket Lab USA, Space Vector and VOX Space would each receive sole-source contracts for two ride-share missions to be conducted over the next 24 months. But it may no longer be possible for the companies to get all $116 million originally set aside for those contracts, Roper acknowledged.

“I don’t know if that much will free up,” he said. “We have had quite a few come in lower than initially estimated. So it’s possible that a resource will be freed, and whatever it is, we can scale some effort in small launch.”

With venture capital drying up due to worldwide economic instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pentagon leaders have been vocal about the impact on the emerging small launch industry, which they see as a critical capability that could allow the Space Force to launch small satellites more cheaply and rapidly.

In April, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord labeled it — along with shipbuilding and aviation — as one of the three sectors the Defense Department was most concerned could be permanently impacted.

“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,” Col. Rob Bongiovi, director of SMC Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate, told C4ISRNET in April. “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.”

Nathan Strout in Washington contributed to this report.

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