Opinion

Investing in America’s Next-Generation Launch Vehicles

At a time when near-peer threats like China are actively contesting America’s strategic and technological advantage in space, the Space Force has set a course that will diminish our nation’s capabilities in space. Fortunately, Congress has the power to safeguard our nation’s assured access to space as it considers the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act this summer.

To enhance America’s space launch capabilities, the 2010 National Space Policy directed federal agencies to encourage and facilitate the growth of a robust U.S. commercial space sector to support all government activities in space. Blue Origin is proud to support this mission through our multi-state supplier network and participation in the National Security Space Launch program.

But as the Space Force moves forward with its planned downselect for the Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, much more is at stake than just two launch contracts. The Space Force’s decision to terminate Launch Service Agreement awards – which provide essential support for launch certification and infrastructure – for any provider not selected does not just negatively affect launch providers and the domestic supplier network, it rolls back the clock on more than a decade of work to build and maintain U.S. space superiority.

America’s space launch industrial base is powered by suppliers across the country that produce important, national security-sensitive products and provide critical technical expertise in areas such as advanced machining and fabrication, composites, avionics, software and testing services. These specialized skills and unique know-how have allowed America to stay one step ahead of near-peer threats like China in space for decades. The Air Force Research Laboratory and Defense Innovation Unit released a joint report calling for the United States to prioritize support for its growing launch industrial base and trusted supply chain to maintain its technological and strategic advantage in space.

A recent report by the RAND Corporation warned the United States will soon be facing a space launch supply shortage that may jeopardize the country’s assured access to space. The report, which the Space Force commissioned, recommends providing tailored support for three launch providers through 2023 and notes a two-provider acquisition strategy poses “significant risk that China, India, or Japan enter or expand their participation in commercial market, further reducing US firms’ market share.”

It is clear the United States faces a crucial crossroads as it works to strengthen its launch industrial base and trusted space supply chain to counter near-peer threats and assure uninterrupted access to space. That is why  Congress should continue Research, Development, Test and Evaluation funding for certification and infrastructure to ensure our competitors cannot gain a foothold in the space launch market. Public-private partnerships – like the LSA – harness innovation in the commercial space launch market and demonstrate how Space Force can drive down the cost of launch while strengthening our nation’s launch industrial and supplier bases at a time of significant economic uncertainty caused by COVID-19.

Space Force’s FY21 budget request supports the continuation of RDT&E funding to ensure the availability of a third certified launch system when the United States risks a launch supply shortfall. Fortunately, Congress has the authority to ensure the Space Force continues funding for three launch providers through the FY 2021 NDAA, which the House Armed Services Committee will soon debate and markup.

For our part, Blue has invested over $2.5 billion in New Glenn, our heavy lift launch system. Over $1 billion of that amount has been spent to develop manufacturing and launch facilities in the U.S that will be certified for NSSL missions. New Glenn is a single configuration heavy-lift launch vehicle that can accommodate multiple mission payloads and be flown the same way each time. Blue is also building the BE-4 engine, the first oxygen-rich staged combustion engine made in the United States to support the Space Force’s transition off the Russian-made RD-180. The BE-4 engine will power two next-generation American launch vehicles – New Glenn and ULA’s Vulcan – assuring U.S. access to space for decades to come.

All of us at Blue are committed to our long-term partnership with the Space Force and are proud to do our part to support its national security space mission. We know that a strong and resilient launch industrial base and trusted supply chain are essential components of an effective national security space strategy. The Space Force’s continued investment in certification and infrastructure support for a third launch provider through 2023 would help ensure that the United States can maintain its strategic and technical advantage in this critical domain. We are encouraged by the steps that Congress is taking to support three national security space launch providers at this pivotal moment for strengthening the United States’ assured access to space. As with all things in space, there is zero margin for error.

 

Megan Mitchell is the director of government and legislative affairs at Blue Origin and serves as the vice chair on the Commercial Spaceflight Federations Regulatory Affairs committee; she previously worked for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation from 2008-2012 and for the chairman of the Space Subcommittee in the House of Representatives from 2012-2015. 

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