When I was Acting Secretary and later Secretary of the Air Force in 1999, the country suffered one of the worst strings of space launch failures in American history. Six serious failures occurred in just nine months, with a loss of satellites worth over $3 billion. To say the obvious, these failures were not insured, so replacing the lost satellites required a significant shift in already strained post-Cold War funding. It is not an exaggeration to say that leaking roofs were required to seep longer to fund replacement satellites.
These launch failures also interrupted a decade-long effort to replace aging satellites whose replacement had been delayed by the loss of Challenger in 1986 and by the need to generate modified or new unmanned rockets to launch satellites originally intended for the Space Shuttle. While the failures occurred across a range of rockets, launch sites, and failure modes, the fact that they all happened within a short span was very troubling and suggested there might be interrelated root causes. Complacency arising from a decade of successes was thought to be one such cause.
Thankfully, the Air Force was as resilient then as it is now and applied its time-tested safety practices to emerge with better launch systems than ever before. Specifically, the Air Force stood down future launches until it conducted a Broad Area Review (BAR) under the leadership of former Chief of Staff Larry Welch, who had been instrumental in rebuilding unmanned space launches after the Challenger failure.
The BAR investigated the string of launch failures and determined the best path forward. It comprised a team of experts from within government and industry to determine the root causes, technical and procedural solutions, and the timelines needed to return each existing system to the launch pad. Perhaps equally important, the BAR recommended the path forward for the nascent Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program that added government oversight (and significant cost) to increase mission safety and reliability as it fielded those systems.
While the BAR did not find complacency, it did find that a combination of launch success and pressure to reduce launch costs had resulted in a hollowing out of engineering, test, and mission assurance functions across manufacturers. In addition, even though launches on legacy systems would occur for another decade, the Air Force itself had also removed many resources from overseeing contractor engineering and safety decisions.
Whereas contractors and launch teams had achieved production quality, cost efficiencies, and safety through learning curve advantages over some 200 launches in the prior decade, production had largely ended, and the Air Force began redirecting personnel to future programs like EELV. Correcting these deficiencies at a high cost and refocusing on risk management created a failure-free launch record for all the legacy systems through their ends of life and set the preconditions for over two decades of successful EELV launches.
Not long after legacy rockets returned to service, however, the EELV experienced a financial crisis of its own. The original plan was to have two contractors provide a family of launch systems. This plan was premised on the belief that commercial launch was about to explode and would give both government and commercial users substantial cost savings while furthering assured access to space if one set of vehicles faltered. But commercial space demand cratered, leading to the abandonment of one EELV system and the rationing of launches between the other systems.
Now, are the lessons of over two decades of failure-free launch being lost?
This prospect is undoubtedly a concern. The Space Force recently proposed modifications to its procurement for national security space launches that may disrupt the entire program. The changes emphasize a more hands-off formula rather than the contractor and government approach created by the BAR, which focused on mission assurance, reliability, and redundancy. Its proposed launch procurement changes risk upending America’s assured access to space and its ability to fend off America’s foreign adversaries (particularly China and Russia) in that domain.
In a recently revised Request for Proposal, the Space Force opened high-risk missions in the National Security Space Launch System (NSSL), America’s most consequential space launch program, up to a third provider, even though, as things stand today, only two contractors have experience successfully launching our nation’s most valuable national security satellites into challenging orbits. Only two have gone through the whole mission assurance cycle mandated by the BAR, which has undergone continuous improvement over the last two decades. This procurement change also raises the question of whether commercial launch demand will now efficiently sustain three providers of launch vehicles when, in the recent past, it could not support two. To understand how radical this procurement change is, one must consider that the Space Force previously mandated that Lane 2 contractors meet nine reference orbits at the program’s start. Now, it has dropped that requirement and will have a contractor that has not met a single reference orbit service Lane 2 launches.
While Lane 1 of the NSSL (the less national security-intensive missions) is already open to all providers and includes annual on-ramping opportunities to accommodate emerging companies as their products reach market readiness, Lane 2 is different. Lane 2 provides assured access to space for critical national security missions, which tend to involve the most expensive satellites. Its launches can mean life or death for the country in the face of China and Russia’s increasingly hostile space motives, partnerships, and general positioning. To think that a contractor that does not presently have a working launch vehicle, nor have any experience launching national security assets into space, can now receive NSSL Lane 2 contracts is not just alarming, it flies in the face of the lessons of the BAR, which made it clear that highly disciplined joint contractor and government oversight of space programs from inception through the establishment of safe operations is critical to avoiding launch failures.
In addition, the economic efficiency of the new approach is not apparent. The NSSL’s competitive, results-driven contracting standards have already saved taxpayers $7 billion. It is one of the most successful space programs the United States has ever overseen, with not a single failure occurring in nearly 100 launches. Adding a third provider to Lane 2 missions would change the economics entirely and could increase costs by $5 billion (onboarding new providers is expensive). To offset some of this cost, the Space Force proposes to cap launch service support to each Lane 2 contractor at $100 million annually, even though such price caps risk further erosion of mission assurance by opening the door for contractor cost-cutting, as was the case in 1998–99.
Moreover, what if commercial demand doesn’t materialize or shifts to lower-cost systems from other countries? Then what will become of a third provider? Will mission requirements be salami-sliced to keep three providers operating at significant government expense, as they once were in EELV?
The old cliché is that those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. Now is not the time for the Space Force to repeat the past. The last time the United States lived through a period of uncertain, unreliable access to space, China and Russia were not nearly as space-motivated or capable as they are today, with China and Russia now seeking to beat the United States in space and land. In some respects, China and Russia, which have increasingly begun partnering to operationalize space as a military domain, are already ahead of the United States, with the 2022 State of the Space Industrial Base report indicating that China may soon eclipse the United States in orbit.
The Space Force should not abandon the policies and practices that brought space launch to where it is today. Replaying 1998 and 1999 now risks launch failures and irreparable long-term effects on our nation’s operations in space.
Whitten Peters served as the 19th Secretary of the United States Air Force and the chair of the Air and Space Force Association.