The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) recently signed a contract modification to reuse a Falcon 9 first-stage booster – for the first time on a National Security Space Launch mission – starting with the fifth Global Positioning System (GPS)-III satellite, scheduled to launch next year.
While SMC’s Launch Enterprise and SpaceX previously signed contract modifications enabling SpaceX to recover boosters for GPS III missions, this landmark “reuse” contract modification is the first of its kind for NSSL missions.
SpaceX and SMC successfully launched and recovered the GPS III-SV03 booster on June 30, 2020, providing valuable data and insight on reusing the Falcon 9 launch vehicle for future NSSL missions. The booster from the upcoming GPS III-SV04 launch will also be recovered.
With this latest contract modification, SMC’s Launch Enterprise agreed to reuse Falcon boosters for GPS III-SV05 and GPS III-SV06, both of which can also be recovered. The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, located at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, California, is the center of excellence for acquiring and developing military space systems.
SMC’s portfolio includes space launch, global positioning systems, military satellite communications, a defense meteorological satellite control network, range systems, space-based infrared systems, and space situational awareness capabilities.
“The United States’ launch industry is the envy of the world,” said Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, Commander of the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. “Industry’s innovation has been key to SMC’s success over our 60+ year existence. I am thrilled to welcome SpaceX’s innovative reuse into the National Security Space Launch program.”
“SMC’s commitment to innovative partnerships and working with the commercial sector while maintaining our mission assurance posture and mission-success record cannot be understated,” said Dr. Walt Lauderdale, SMC’s Falcon Systems and Operations Division chief and frequent mission director. “I am proud of our partnership with SpaceX that allowed us to successfully negotiate contract modifications for the upcoming GPS III missions that will save taxpayers $52.7 million while maintaining our unprecedented record of success.”
“SpaceX is proud to leverage Falcon 9’s flight-proven benefits and capabilities for national security space launch missions,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer. “We appreciate the effort that the U.S. Space Force invested into the evaluation and are pleased that they see the benefits of the technology. Our extensive experience with reuse has allowed SpaceX to continually upgrade the fleet and save significant precious tax dollars on these launches.”
The Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate (SMC/LE), was stood up Oct. 14, 2015 at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif. The directorate brings together the Launch Systems Directorate and the Rocket Systems Launch Program, which formerly fell under SMC’s Advanced Systems and Development Directorate (SMC/AD) at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. This realignment not only advances SMC’s capability development, but feeds into the next generation of SMC’s space systems and into architectural baselines for decades to come.
The directorate’s mission is to be the guardian of assured access: launching when and where the nation needs it. SMC/LE’s vision statement is to be the most respected and innovative spacelift team, delivering mission success while enabling a robust U.S. launch industry This capability provides assured access to space for the nation. SMC/LE’s mission also includes mission assurance and launch safety.
The directorate manages the National Security Space Launch program (NSSL, formerly the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, or EELV) for the Air Force, based on the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act designating the formal name change on March 1, 2019. The change was prompted by the Secretary of Defense where the NSSL program shall provide consideration of both reusable and expendable launch vehicles with respect to any future solicitation.
As the Air Force’s spacelift modernization program, EELV was designed to increase reliability and reduce launch costs by at least 25 percent over heritage Atlas, Delta and Titan space launch systems. The NSSL program continues this mission today with launch capability provided by ULA’s Delta IV and Atlas V launch vehicles, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Upgrade and their associated launch sites. 2012 marked the tenth anniversary of the first EELV launch. In March 2012, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics issued an Acquisition Decision Memorandum designating EELV as an Acquisition Category ID Major Defense Acquisition Program.
While the directorate’s primary responsibility is the acquisition and operation of launch vehicles, SMC/LE is also leading an effort to certify “new entrants” to provide launch services for National Security payloads. The Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration are jointly implementing this initiative. SMC/LE’s mission also includes mission assurance and launch safety.