Pressure to reduce defense spending and potential growth in the medium-class launch vehicle market could provide the catalyst that will finally allow the Pentagon to reduce the size of its massive, expensive satellites and, eventually, reduce the high cost of operating in space.

For decades, the cost of launch has driven the Pentagon to build large satellites, as engineers effectively crammed as much capability as possible on each rocket.

“Because of the cost of launch and the capacity that we have with the launch vehicles, it has made the model more economical to make bigger satellites,” says Dave Madden, executive director of the Space and Missile Systems Center, which oversees procurement of satellites and boosters for the Air Force. “It is kind of like a death spiral, [but] competition in the medium [class] will enable us to build smaller spacecraft and launch them for much less money and, fundamentally, change that model.”

There has long been rhetoric from senior Air Force officials on this subject, but several forces may be converging to make good on such a shift. There is now an abundance of commercially available spacecraft buses suitable for launching on medium-class boosters. And, they appear to be appropriate for handling future USAF missions that call for smaller satellites—including a next-generation weather satellite and infrared missile warning spacecraft as well as a tactical, protected satellite communications design, Madden says.

These commercially available buses mean the Pentagon will not have to carry the cost of nonrecurring engineering for the flight software or bus upgrades. There were unique and high costs for these elements of the current satellite constellations.

Furthermore, a culture that has grown accustomed to the old model of building large, often $1 billion spacecraft, now appears outdated in light of financial pressure. “If we tried to push this through three or four years ago, I think we would have gotten a lot of resistance,” Madden says. “The environment we are in right now is affording us the opportunity to look hard at this . . . . Sometimes it is really hard for us if there isn't a reason to change.” The new model could also allow for 4-5-year cycle times compared to the at least eight years needed to deliver a payload today.

Finally, Madden says, potential growth in the medium-class launch vehicle market could subject this piece of the equation to the forces of competition. USAF is in negotiations with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to outline the steps needed to gain certification.

SpaceX is the first would-be competitor to the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a monopoly birthed in 2006 out of Lockheed Martin's and Boeing's businesses to operate the Pentagon's Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.

Ultimately, the company hopes to get its Falcon 9 v1.1 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles certified for use boosting “Class A” Pentagon satellites—national security payloads that are not risk-tolerant. Company officials declined to be interviewed for this article, but they told the Government Accountability Office (GAO) they plan to achieve certification for the Falcon 9 v1.1 late this year. Both new SpaceX vehicles will rely on the yet-to-be-proven Merlin 1D engine; first flight is slated for this year.

Though negotiations are underway, SpaceX must achieve three flights of the v1.1 with a payload fairing, two of which must be flown consecutively, says Christina Ra, a company spokeswoman. The third of these vehicles is now being manufactured.

The Pentagon's strategy calls for depending solely on industry for development. “We are not paying SpaceX to develop,” says Scott Correll, the Air Force program executive officer for launch. Though SpaceX has achieved acclaim with its missions delivering cargo to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit, Air Force officials say this is only a first step. “Taking Dragon to 220 miles above Earth is quite different than the missions we conduct,” Correll says. “We want to make sure the upper stage can perform,” because much of the Air Force's hardware is in geosynchronous or medium-Earth orbits.

SpaceX beat Orbital Sciences, offering its yet-to-be flown Antares, for two Air Force missions in December. The first will require a Falcon 9 v1.1 to fly NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory in November 2014. The second, a more complex mission, calls for the Falcon Heavy to boost a Space Test Program satellite in September 2015. These are non-Class-A missions, meaning the Pentagon can tolerate some risk to mission success.

“The hardest thing for SpaceX is going to be [to fly] a robust commercial manifest [and] do all of this activity with us,” Correll says. “I do believe they have the engineering talent . . . the question is what is their bandwidth?”

Correll declined to discuss the status of other possible new entrants, citing privacy concerns. However, Orbital is in talks to certify Antares (slated for a first flight in mid-April) by 2018; Lockheed Martin plans to certify its Athena III (although a target date is not set); and Alliant Techsystems is suggesting it will certify a version of its Liberty vehicle in late 2016, according to the GAO.

Meanwhile, Correll is balancing the program to welcome new entrants into the market against reducing the price of services from his monopoly provider. The Air Force is preparing for negotiations with ULA to buy 36-50 launch cores over the next five years. While ULA is expected to get work for 36 cores, the remaining 14 needed could be competed if entrants are available, or they could be added to ULA's contract.

A request for proposals for those 14 cores outside the ULA work scope is expected next January at the soonest, Correll says. These would be for up to five boosters in 2015 that would launch in 2017. If no contenders to ULA are certified by the time proposals are due, the orders for 2015 will be added to ULA's work order and the Air Force would reassess to see if a competitor is suitable a year later and so on, Correll says. He has a “high confidence” of a competitor being eligible in 2015 for fiscal 2017 launches.

Meanwhile, he is planning to wrap up talks with ULA for the 36-50-core deal by October, when fiscal 2014 begins. To date, the Air Force has bought launch vehicles from ULA singly, the most inefficient way possible. Under the new deal, ULA will buy the long-lead parts, shifting risk to the contractor but also allowing for much greater stability and predictability in production flow. “ULA is taking all of the risk. We are making all of the investment,” says CEO Mike Gass. “If we overrun, we will take it out of profit.” Gass says the proposal to the government submitted last summer was $7 billion below the anticipated price if the cores were each bought individually. Under significant cost scrutiny, Gass says he improved efficiency by reducing his workforce by 2,000—it is now at 3,700— since the 2006 merger.

Correll applauds ULA's management improvements, but says more can still be done for efficiency.

ULA plans for 12 launches this year and 14 next year, a rate that will support improved efficiency, Gass says.

One unanswered question, however, is whether a combination of government and commercial work will be enough to support multiple launch providers later in the decade when planned Pentagon work could taper off. It is around this time, Madden says, that the Air Force could embark on some demonstrations of disaggregated satellite architectures—such as one to follow on to the Space-Based Infrared System missile-warning mission. Without enough commercial activity to bolster the market, the Pentagon will be in the same position it was in the early 2000s that led to the decision to consolidate Lockheed and Boeing into a single company in search of reduced cost.

“I have to ask whether we are going back to where we were when we had Titan,” Correll says, referring to a costly, legacy Martin rocket family. At issue: Will there be enough launches to justify the high cost of multiple infrastructures? For ULA, those costs are now being handled by the government, which is unwilling to take on another bill for separate launch facilities. “Are we just going back to the future?” Correll asks.