In the 1950s, President Eisenhower began the development of the MIDAS program, a satellite constellation that would carry infrared sensors to detect hostile ICBM launches. The architecture of this nascent mission and the companies that provisioned it have continued to this day as America’s missile defense surveillance system. Over the decades, this system has been developed, fielded and evolved much like the rockets that once launched those satellites into orbit – by a government-directed industry. The companies, operating under simple cost reimbursed contracts, have diligently built and operated these exquisite systems for generations. Their biggest challenge to success became less technical over time and more focused on keeping Congressional funding to ensure sufficient funding to counter an evolving threat. This industrial construct created by venerable legacy contractors has provided an early warning capability that has been critical to America’s nuclear deterrent for over 60 years.
Enter Elon Musk. When DARPA first took a chance and partnered with Musk on the small Falcon 1 launch in 2007, SpaceX got its first foot through the door of the Defense Department and ultimately brought Space Force launch costs down by as much as 80%. Critics who had at one time scoffed at Musk’s often-overzealous ambitions – especially after his first few failures – are now eating their words, over a decade since NASA first inked his partnership deal. Having demonstrated his tenacity and success with rockets, Musk’s critics should be mindful as he takes on his next challenge to the status quo: the seemingly intractable missile defense architecture.
Over the course of 60 years, our legacy companies have developed and upgraded existing constellations and ground systems, per the government’s explicit direction. Through a recently awarded contract with the Space Development Agency (SDA), however, Musk is again challenging conventional wisdom with the most vital of Space Force missions. If the SDA is successful in fusing commercial industry and private capital, there is a strong likelihood for a SpaceX repeat performance. The result? A few billion dollars saved and a better positioned U.S. space economy for competition on the world stage.
Soon after signing its next generation communication system contracts, the SDA awarded contracts to two outsider companies for missile tracking satellites. Each company will build four satellites in what will eventually become a proliferated constellation of approximately one hundred, each one utilizing commercial or “off the shelf” spacecraft subsystems and components.
Winning a hard-fought fixed-price competition with their own commercial designs, both SpaceX and L3Harris (an historic supplier to traditional defense companies) are now under contract to address the hardest part of missile defense – tracking the next generation of hypersonic missile threats. These companies are building the first grouping, or “tranche” as SDA calls it, of a constellation that addresses advanced missile threats and provides resiliency to the existing missile warning system. By leveraging commodity, commercial spacecraft, the SDA is building much of the SmallSat side of the Hybrid Architecture that SMC is leading overall for the Space Force.
According to conversations with defense officials in the Pentagon, the SDA’s tracking system will detect, track and assess missile threats, such as the notorious dim hypersonic glide vehicles that our near peer adversaries China and Russia are developing. Those additional sensors in a proliferated low earth orbit architecture will have residual capability that will equip the missile defense system with much-needed resiliency. Barely over a decade ago, the first Falcon 1 could only carry a small satellite to orbit, but now the Falcon is carrying astronauts and their supplies to and from the ISS, with a price increase but nothing remotely close to the Space Shuttle. It would be surprising if SpaceX does not have a proprietary plan that takes this “Tranche 0” win of four missile tracking satellites to somewhere equally as impressive in the years to come.
In two years, when the SDA transitions to the Space Force, it will have two new companies tackling a mission with fresh sets of eyes and clean sheets of paper. After being competitively selected, it’s clear that both SpaceX and L3Harris are eager to help lead the nation forward in this vital mission area. If it’s nearly as successful as the Falcon 9 became in upending the entire launch business, we are in for exciting times. And given the critical nature of this new technology, we’ll all sleep a little safer once these space systems go into orbit.