talks commercial launch, small sats, and new contracting methods.
by Warren Ferster May 18, 2016
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is taking full advantage of emerging commercial space and information technology capabilities including launch, NRO Director Betty Sapp declared in a Wednesday keynote at GEOINT 2016.
NRO already has contracted for launches from SpaceX, Sapp said, but did not provide any details of the missions since much of NRO’s work is classified. Founded by celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX recently broke United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) longtime monopoly on the U.S. national security launch business by winning a contract to launch an Air Force GPS satellite. ULA, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, declined to bid on that contract.
Sapp praised SpaceX for having success with what she characterized as an “unconventional” approach to satellite launch. SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket has a first stage powered by nine relatively small engines, a design scheme that raised skepticism before the rocket ran off a string of successful missions.
“We have bought launches from SpaceX—they’re a great partner for us,” Sapp said, adding the company has “challenged the conventional wisdom in the launch industry with great success.”
Launch is just one of the areas in which NRO is leveraging commercial investment and innovation. The agency is also taking advantage of the small satellite revolution, which coupled with the emergence of low-cost launch options is enabling missions NRO previously would not undertake, Sapp said.
The NRO is known for building large, unique, and very complex and expensive satellites to carry out its missions. But Sapp said the agency is now flying satellites of all sizes, including cube sats. Although the NRO initially used cube sats as a low-cost means of testing promising technologies in space, it is now using them for operational missions, Sapp said.