Podcast: Interview with ULA’s Tory Bruno

The president and CEO of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) discusses the company’s upcoming first launch of the new Vulcan rocket, the impact of the Space Force and the future of space transportation.

Tory Bruno touched on a number of topics in this wide-ranging interview with Aviation Week editors Jen DiMascio and Irene Klotz. Here is a guide to the discussion:

1:05 ULA Vulcan Centaur overview
2:05 Vulcan first launch
2:22 Blue Origin BE-4 engine is the Vulcan’s pacing item
2:52 Astrobotic Peregrine first commercial lunar lander
4:00 Peregrine mission will be delayed to 2022
5:18 BE-4 challenges
6:20 Vulcan tanking test and Pathfinder vehicle
7:24 Sierra Space mission
9:23 Atlas to continue National Security Space Phase 2 missions
12:05 Reaction to Government Accountability Office report
13:03 National Security Space Launch Phase 3 Technologies
17:13 Flying unpredictable orbits
19:28 How the Space Force has changed ULA operations
23:04 Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage reusability
25:42 Commercial applications for new upper stage capabilities
28:00 The logistics of getting and sustaining humans on the moon
29:16 How to get 20%-30% more payload to the moon
31:40 Will ULA remain a launch company?
32:36 Corporate responsibility in space
39:06 Launching into congested areas of space
41:58 Integrated air and space traffic management
43:35 Is there a limit to space traffic?
49:04 Where ULA puts its space junk
51:40 What are ULA’s new big problems?

Rush transcript:

Jen DiMascio:

Hello and welcome to the Check 6 podcast. I’m Jen DiMascio, Executive Editor for Defense & Space. I’m here with Space Editor, Irene Klotz, and a very special guest, Tory Bruno, the President and CEO of the United Launch Alliance. That means he's the principle strategic leader of the organization, overseeing all of the business management and operations, but the real reason why we're very excited to have him with us today is that ULA is on the verge of launching its new Vulcan Centaur rocket, and that might be a good place to start the discussion, the upcoming launch. So maybe you can open with that and tell us a little bit about the Vulcan and this particular mission.

Tory Bruno:

Yeah. Sure. So Vulcan is in fabrication right now. We've actually built the first booster already. It's not the first one that'll fly, it's the first one we built that can fly and it's down at Cape Canaveral on its brand-new mobile launch platform that we call the Vulcan Mobile Launch Platform. And it's pathfinding for us. It's taking tests. It's making sure all of the software and launch hardware and support equipment that is involved is working properly. One of the things people probably would never guess, or maybe they would if they thought about it, but the launch pad is actually way more complicated than the rocket. There's all kinds of pneumatic and hydraulic systems and electronics and whatnot. So that first booster is down there doing that. It's been doing that for several months. The actual booster that we will fly first, because that one will go back into line when it's done and flight later, the one that'll fly first is in the factory right now being built. We've just put the tanks together. So it looks like a booster, and it's getting the other things that will go on it.

Tory Bruno:

The pacing item, I think I've shared with Irene before, is still the BE-4 Blue Origin rocket engine. And to sort of put it in context, whenever you develop a new rocket, your pacing item is always software, unless you have a new engine, and then it's always the engine. And so in this case, we have a new engine. Our first payload is going to be the Astrobotic Peregrine lunar lander, which is also kind of a cool mission, partly because it's going to the moon, which is super cool, but also because it is the first commercial lunar lander. And so this robotic lunar lander will go land on the moon. It has various payloads. It's sort of like a modular system that can carry a number of different things. And anyone, probably not now, I'm going to guess they're done now, but anyone could have bought a payload to go to the moon. And in fact, we purchased a small payload, which has a tiny little thing that has the names of all the ULA employees on it. So they're going to the moon on the Lander on Vulcan. That's our first mission.

Tory Bruno:

And Irene, I will break news for you because it's you. So you've heard us talking about flying this year. And the fact is we have a path to go fly at the end of the year if Blue Origin is able to hold their schedules going forward and nothing exciting happens. And I put all these caveats because development is development and you're not done until you're done. We would be able to fly before the end of the year, likely in December. However, I will share with you that Peregrine is also a development program, and it is their very first spacecraft.

Tory Bruno:

And we have pretty good insight into where they are, and they're doing okay, but it's taken them longer. And they are not going to be ready to fly by December. And this isn't a test flight for us, this first flight, it's a real mission and that's our payload, and I don't want to fly without my payload. So we're going to wait for them. And the first flight of Vulcan will not be in 2021, it will be in 2022. And I don't have a more specific date for you than that because they are working their plans right now and deciding exactly when they will be ready. And they're not quite done doing that yet. And so I don't have that date and it's really their news to tell, I think anyway.

Tory Bruno:

But that's where we are. Things are going well technically. The engine from Blue Origin is on the test stand. It's got lots and lots of time on it. We've narrowed down to what we think is the final configuration. And it's in its what we call prequalification test series now where we do all the tests we would do in qual and more where you get to have margins. So that before you go into formal qualification, you've actually got a really good feeling that you should just go right through it and be successful at that. And yet also have an understanding of maybe how far an engine could be pushed in an off nominal condition or something like that. So that's happening and we liked the performance. It's better than I expected. So that's all good. And the challenges we have, just getting it all done, making the schedule, we're still going to drive towards having that rocket ready, even though our payload will take longer because in our business, you always want the rocket waiting on the spacecraft and not the other way around.

Irene Klotz:

Thanks Tory. Before we leave Vulcan, are you going to take a little more time for the tanking test and the Pathfinder Vehicle now, or-

Tory Bruno:

We are.

Irene Klotz:

So what does that look like? When will the tanking test be?

Tory Bruno:

So the tanking test is going to be just in a few weeks and yes, you're exactly right. Since we know we have more time to do testing, we're going to use that time so that we can burn that risk down even further. We'll do more testing than we planned, and we're actually going to move the tanking out a little bit so that it fits well inside the manifest. I don't have the date for you right now because we're rearranging the manifest a little bit and we haven't released that yet either. And so what we'll do in the meantime is a lot of testing on the ground systems that are software and electronics and pneumatics focused rather than the unloading and offloading of propellants. And then we'll pick the right time and we'll do that and probably do potentially a little more of those tests than were originally planned. More testing before your first flight is always better.

Irene Klotz:

So you're not just on-ramping Astrobotic as a new customer, you're also your next one is going to be adding a Sierra Space to the mix. And then you have to coordinate with ISS schedules, which are a little cumbersome these days. So what is it looking like? And also you recently changed your first phase two launch to fly on an Atlas, again buying yourself some extra time to handle all these new things happening at once. So how do you think all that's going to play out and what is the risk of the Sierra Space Dream Chaser mission, even going to be more dicey than what's going on with Astrobotic?

Tory Bruno:

That's a great question too. So Sierra Nevada for your listeners, is the very next payload and we would fly the Dream Chaser with a cargo run up to the space station. We still expect it to be number two, number one being Peregrine, and number two being Sierra Nevada. They are also developing a brand new vehicle, their first vehicle to develop it. And we are working closely with them too, because when you are the launch provider, you work closely with your payload to integrate it ahead of time to make sure everything is going to fit. And the environments will be compatible and all the operational procedures, if there's any that are special. So you get a lot of insight. They're doing fine as well. Their schedule, as we see it still puts them after where we expect Astrobotic to land.

Tory Bruno:

I don't have any concerns about them, any special concerns. And in terms of the details of where they're at, I'd refer you to them. They'll have better information that they would share. Other than for me, just to say, it looks like they're doing fine and we're comfortable with them. The Atlas taking over the first NSSL program or phase two mission, that actually started a while back. And we knew that... I'll say it this way. We know what the mission is, obviously, because it was assigned to us. And based on that knowledge, we knew that it would be efficient, pretty efficient to fly it on an Atlas, both for us and for the spacecraft provider. And we began talking with the Air Force quite a long time ago about, "Do you want that? Do you prefer that on an Atlas?" And if it would help the spacecraft customer to have it on Atlas, it would certainly help us because our integration efforts would be less because of what that payload is. And it would give us more schedule margin down the road.

Tory Bruno:

And when you're in development, any time a schedule margin opportunity appears whether you needed it or not, you'd take it because you never know when you might need it. So even though that finally showed up in a contract, not that long ago, we'd actually been working that for quite a while. And I'll also remind you how that contract works because people will ask, "Oh, well, does that mean the Air Force is paying more because Atlas is more expensive than Vulcan?" No, it doesn't. When we proposed that big NSL contract, we were allowed to have alternative launch vehicles in it. All of the bidders were we put Atlas in it. But the catch is whatever alternative launch vehicle you put in there, you have to offer it at the same price as your baseline vehicle. And so yes, Atlas is a little bit more expensive, more expensive than Vulcan, but we still have to offer it for the same price.

Tory Bruno:

So it doesn't really cost the government any more. And in fact, it'll probably cost them a little less on the spacecraft side. Like I said, it's easier to integrate it because of what it is that I can't discuss and its similarity to things in the past.

Jen DiMascio:

The [Government Accountability Office] recently put out a report talking about some of what we've discussed on the BE-4 engine experiencing some challenges and your continuance of the use of Atlas for national security missions into 2022. Do you have any more information on what some of those issues are with the BE-4 or are they just the normal type of issues you were talking about?

Tory Bruno:

It really is the normal sorts of things you do to execute through development. And really our challenges are just scheduled, just getting through a pretty complicated and full qualification test program in ramping up production. I'll share with you, there were inaccuracies in the GAO report or at least things that people could easily misunderstand. They talked about a couple of specific items that really are not, they are not open technical items and they're not pacing the development of the engine. They did not talk to us. So I don't have any knowledge as to where that information that they talked about in the report came from. It wasn't from us. I don't believe it was from Blue [Origin], because like I said, it really wasn't accurate.

Irene Klotz:

The initial outlines for the phase three are out and we've talked in the past, Tory, about fun things you can do with upper stages. Are you able to talk in general terms of what's in your toolbox or what are you looking at for new technologies in the Centaur, what might follow on Centaur Five?

Tory Bruno:

Sure. That's also a great question because when you look at what they're discussing, they talk about this missionary a little bit differently than in the past. You had lift and then you had on our orbit operations of robotic spacecraft, if you will, autonomous spacecraft, and now they have this thing, they talk about access, maneuver and transport, and they discuss space in a logistics kind of context. And they also, which is fascinating, make provisions for a little bit further view of that environment in that they talk about people as well. So I don't think we'll see Space Force personnel deployed initially, on the day one of phase three, but they're thinking that much further down the road, so that that's actually part of the doctrine that they have published around that mission area. So they're putting in the hooks if you will, and the advanced thinking so that it will be possible when the time is right.

Tory Bruno:

And we think that it's going to be for providers of lift, it's going to be largely about capabilities in the upper stage that are going to be interesting in mission enabling and the new technology. So that's why this is such a very insightful question. Boost is fine. We've got new rockets, all of us coming through phase two or both of us and the boosters. The first stages are very capable or at least they will be when we're all done with them. And really, what's interesting will be the upper stage. And so for Centaur Five, so much larger than Centaur three, so there's way more energy to work with. And as we evolve it, we will extend its endurance. So in terms of what I can talk about in general terms, I'll share that one with you.

Tory Bruno:

The longer you can be in orbit with the stage and the even greater number of starts and stops, means you can do all kinds of missions that are more complex than today, and that you potentially, our new missions that don't exist at all. And what else can I say that you would find interesting? I think it's certainly-

Irene Klotz:

What about-

Tory Bruno:

Oh, go ahead.

Irene Klotz:

What about refuel ability and orbits beyond geo?

Tory Bruno:

Yeah. That's a great topic as well. So let me put that in the context first, of an example that I can talk about in the open that one might consider as a mission in a contested space environment. Today, when we launch, when anyone launches, the adversary has a pretty good idea what you're launching because they see what rocket showed up and they understand the capabilities of the rocket, and they're able to observe the outbound trajectory. And in some cases they probably have the technical means to know a lot about the deployment of the payload as well. And so they know how big it is, and they know where you put it, and they know the orbit it is in, that means they know where it is forever. They always know where it is. And based on those things, they probably can make a pretty good educated guess about what it is and what its mission is. That shouldn't be true going forward in a contested environment.

Tory Bruno:

And for example, why would I not want to fly a trajectory that is harder to track? Why would I not want to hang onto my spacecraft until their surveillance coverage is not as complete? Why would I perhaps not want to drop off a payload that I am comfortable with them observing while having another more interesting payload not deployed that I hang on to for a while, and perhaps goes to some other orbit entirely. Or maybe even go further out beyond earth orbit and come back and later deploy so that I greatly complicate their job of understanding what is an orbit and where it is. And that's important because if an adversary is putting up anti-space capabilities, there's a couple of functions they have to do, right? They have to understand where all your spacecraft are, understand what they are. And so they can prioritize them if they, God forbid, want to attack them. These are the ones I would attack first. These are the ones that would attack second.

Tory Bruno:

Then they want to have a space surveillance or space situational awareness to keep track of all those things. It's fixed resources. That you could put up only so many launches in a year and only so many spacecraft. And so you're devoting a portion of it to that mission and another portion to the weapons they might put in space and so on. If I make that first job very, very hard, knowing what it is, where it is, that moves resources away from the weapons, you might deploy in space to the space situational awareness. That makes the environment more stable. And then after they figure all that out, perhaps it should be moved. They can do it again. So, that's one example of the kinds of missions that the Space Force could consider with advanced technical capabilities on offer stages. There are others.

Jen DiMascio:

How has the creation of the Space Force changed if at all, what you do?

Tory Bruno:

I would say that in terms of day-to-day operations in launching the missions that are already on everyone's plate and in the manifest, very little, because it's the same group of space professionals that we've worked with for a number of years that know their business and understand the ranges and understand the launch providers. So, that part has been a very smooth transition. However, the topic we were just discussing, the ability to have mature forward-thinking thoughtful strategies about the future and the technologies that might be needed, that's very different now. A handful of years ago, I was imagining what they might need someday in terms of capabilities, because the advancing threat from our potential adversaries in China, especially in space, has been known for several years and people who've been wondering what to do about it. And there's been different thoughts, most of them not integrated.

Tory Bruno:

Now that we have the Space Force, they have brought all together. And they have built a doctrine that we just talked about a moment ago. They are doing conversations with industry and they're issuing RFIs and we're getting feedback. And so all of a sudden this is a very focused and integrated effort that is allowing us to really make much better assessments of the investments we should be making in advancing our upper stage. So, that is really different and by the way, great. Because you remember a few years ago, I talked about an upper stage we called [the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage]. It was a Centaur three derivative. And I will tell you that that was all us. That was our vision 100%. It was me and my team imagining what would be needed to cope with this problem and how that could manifest into launch vehicle solutions, like an ACES upper stage.

Tory Bruno:

And we would go around and tell people in the government about it, but they weren't pulling. I was pushing. And now we're getting feedback about what they might really need. And so it allows us to say, "Okay, well, a lot of ACES is absolutely, I guessed right." And now we think of ACES is our concept car whereas Centaur five is that production model, if you will, and it's absorbing a lot of those technologies, but not all of them, because a couple of the really cool things we thought of, the louvre back windows and the flaring fenders, the customers now are saying, "Well, I'm not that interested in those things. It's these other things that I think are going to help me." And so that allows us to really have that focus. And this is great because there's never endless money to spend on development and technology. You need to make choices and focus your efforts. And they're allowing me to do that today because of the Space Force.

Irene Klotz:

So speaking of ACES, one feature that was kind of cool was it was recoverable. Has that idea now kind of off the table?

Tory Bruno:

No, it is not off the table. And so our ideas about ACES was for it to be reusable. And for that reusability to be in space. The thing about an upper stage is you invest an enormous amount of energy to get it orbital. Boosters don't do that. The booster's job is to overcome what we call gravity losses to get you most of the way out of the Earth's gravity well, and while it's doing that, by the way, the upper stage, it thinks it's just payload, it's just mass, it's not helping yet. So it's all on the booster, get it up there, attain a certain altitude off the surface of the earth and then hand it off to the upper stage to spend its energy to reach orbital velocities, and then go do all these really cool things out in space. So you don't want to waste that and say, "Oh, well, I'm going to fly back to earth just so that my reusability concept is to take that upper stage through a factory," and then have to spend all that booster energy again, to get it up there. We want the upper stage used in space, reused in space.

Tory Bruno:

So, that element of our idea behind ACES, that's still there. And Centaur will fly first, next year, as I shared with you in what we call the mark one configuration, which has more endurance and certainly a lot more energy because the ACES, I should say the Centaur Five upper stage carries so much more propellant in the Centaur three. But then there'll be a mark two that has even more endurance and a little bit more performance, a little bit more energy too, and then finally a mark three that carries that endurance way out there. And I'm not going to say how far out there yet, because I don't want to take employment away from the competitive intelligence teams at my competitors. I want them to still have a job to try and figure out exactly what we're going to do.

Irene Klotz:

Very generous of you, Tory. Will it be possible that the mark three or mark two can be refueled in orbit?

Tory Bruno:

I'm not going to talk about that today.

Irene Klotz:

Okay. Are there commercial cases for any of these core things you want to do with the upper stage?

Tory Bruno:

Well, there's certainly a sort of an immediate commercial case for the higher thrust in higher energy that Centaur Five will carry, and that is large payloads into LEO, which as you know, Amazon has bought nine Atlases to start their Kuiper constellation. And we are now competing for follow-on missions with Vulcan. And so that's an easy one and that's pretty straightforward. That's just big truck mass to LEO. But beyond that, these other capabilities I talked about really go above and beyond what the initial commercial marketplace needs today. So in other words, a commercial operator, they need their spacecraft taken to a certain place and put there accurately and quickly. So things like direct injection that we can do today with Centaur Three, with multiple burns and the endurance we have over many hours, satisfy that need. And the really cool things we've just been talking about really go beyond that.

Tory Bruno:

And they're pretty unique to the military, to the national security space needs because a commercial satellite doesn't expect to perform space situational awareness. They don't expect to defend themselves from an adversary who might escalate a conflict in the space. They expect to be protected by the Space Force. And so a lot of those advanced capabilities are initially really, really for that, for national security. And they're just not needed by a commercial telecommunications provider who goes to geosynchronous orbit with a big spacecraft or even a mega constellation that's going to be in LEO. They're just not there. However, as we look beyond, as we look beyond that a little bit further first to the Artemis program that will have a permanent human presence on the moon, just like we do in the international space station, there will be a very large logistics activity that goes on to support that.

Tory Bruno:

So it's not just the first missions that were awarded under the Human Space Launch Program or getting Gateway up there and getting a Lander there and getting the first people on the moon. If you're going to sustain them, people permanently in gateway, people permanently on the surface where they're going, there'll be going up and down, but the idea's there's always somebody on the surface. That takes a trucking service that's constantly bringing fuel and bringing the modules that get left on the moon. Remember the lander that goes to the surface of the moon in the current architecture doesn't take off. It stays there like the Apollo architecture. Only that tug that takes you from the near-rectilinear halo orbit, where gateway is down to the lunar orbit from which they land. That thing goes back and forth, but the other stuff is going to stay on the surface.

Tory Bruno:

So there's tons, there's metric tons of food, water, propellant equipment that is constantly going out to the moon. So, that's its own mission. And should I share this? Okay, I'm going to share it. I've given you one scoop. So I'm going to give you another one. If you use other less traditional or less commonplace trajectories, you can take significantly more payload to someplace like the moon. So there's a kind of trajectory recall the week boundary stability trajectory, or sometimes called the ballistic capture trajectory. And depending on the two bodies you're going between, this can make a significant difference in the maximum mass or payload that any given rocket can carry. It can be as much as 20 to 30% more payload when we talk about the earth to moon system. And when we're talking about a train, a logistics train of constant trips back and forth, back and forth, that number is a pretty important number.

Tory Bruno:

But there's a catch. A weak stability boundary trajectory takes a lot more time. And in fact, to go from earth to moon on a sort of an optimal version of that trajectory can take five months. So that's some significant endurance on an upper stage because there's a burn at the end of that five months. It's not just that you let it go on a earth moon trajectory after a normal five-hour mission and it goes on for five months, no, you have to take it there for five months and insert it at the end of that journey. So that's a NASA government, but non national security mission that is going to be a commercial construct for NASA that will enjoy the advanced capabilities that we're going to put into Centaur. And that extends to that eventual commercial environment in cislunar space, where we're extracting natural resources and bringing them back to the earth and going back and forth. The five months doesn't matter when it's a continuous train of rockets going out in this logistics sort of wagon train, if you will, but it does make a big difference in payload and therefore cost.

Irene Klotz:

Is ULA, going into the future, going to stay focused on launch and this kind of extended delivery, or do you think that the company at some point will do what so many of these younger launch companies are doing, which is diversifying their services and their hardware to be able to address more markets? So you have, Rocket Lab just got its first contract. They're not buying a launch, they're buying the upper, what started as the kick stage for Electron as free flying little Mars spacecraft now.

Tory Bruno:

We intend to stay focused on transportation, whatever transportation looks like for our customers. But we don't have any plans at this time to branch into capsules, for example, or actual space mining or the infrastructure that we just talked about on the moon. No. Our plans for the next several years, I'll say for the foreseeable future, are still focused on going to space and traveling through space with some cargo.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, I was looking over your testimony to the house transportation committee and noticed a couple of pretty interesting items within that. One of them was your comments regarding the need for space launch companies to comply with FAA rules and regulations. You said, "Responsible operators will comply with FAA regulations and licenses. Those who do not should face enforcement and impactful consequences." So it sounded like to me to be perhaps a reference to SpaceX's activities with the SN8 last December, that the Verge had recently reported on very ably. Is that the case? And what kind of enforcement are you talking about?

Tory Bruno:

Well, I'm really talking about a broader context and in a situation that is becoming a lot more immediate and critical due to a new mission in low earth orbit, which are now being called the mega constellations, we used to call them proliferated LEO. Because it will significantly increase the activity, both going to and from space and the spacecraft that are in LEO. And the way I would suggest people will start to think of is in terms of the perennial orbital debris topic that we always like to talk about. We've all been talking about for years and wanting to manage it and wanting to be in front of it. And yet I will contend that no one has done anything significant in terms of that, other than there are standards for stage disposal and for end of life spacecraft disposal and responsible providers have been following that for a long time. There's no missions to go collect up orbital debris, for example, or anything like that.

Tory Bruno:

And this is because it's always tomorrow's problem. It will be down the road. It will be when there are more spacecraft and when there are more orbital debris objects, that it becomes a challenge to have access to space or to safely operate in space years from now. I will share with you that, nope, it's now, it's literally now, in fact, it's yesterday. And with the deployment of the first mega constellation into what we refer to, not just as LEO, but what is referred to as the congested region of LEO, the most popular place to go. When we look at the total, historically, the total spacecraft that are active and on orbit, the majority of them are always in LEO. That's the most popular orbit. As we sit here today, we have almost doubled the active spacecraft in LEO, just in the last couple of years with this first mega constellation.

Tory Bruno:

And for the first time ever, we have to think about that as a physically dense region of space. Normally, when we consider a license for a spacecraft operator and the government issues those, the focus is on interference in the RF spectrum. It's not that the spacecraft are going to run into each other, or be too physically close to one another. When they issue a license and say, "Well, you can have this spectrum in this orbit at this location in the orbit," they're making considerations mostly driven by [radio frequency] interference between one another. That's no longer the case. So this first mega constellation is a relatively low altitude just above the international space station and for a relatively small band of altitude above that, that all the spacecraft exist and they are physically dense. They're spacing is not what we are accustomed to.

Tory Bruno:

And what that means is that, I'll start with a launch provider like ourselves. If you're going to fly to a high energy orbit, you go right through that, through its short length, kind of radially through it and it does not affect your opportunity to launch very much. If you are going instead to a low earth orbit, say that's adjacent to it, just above, you'll sweep through that shell in a very long oblique arc, an ellipse, and spend a lot of time in it. That actually does, with the tools we have available to us today, significantly limit our access, our launch opportunities. And so when we go to space, you're accustomed to seeing a launch window, right? Now, there's a 45-minute launch window for Tory's launch today, or there's an hour and a half or whatever it is. The way that works is that there actually is, and then inside that window, the exact optimal, perfect time to go.

Tory Bruno:

And because of the kinematic performance of the rocket, we can go earlier or later. We can make up for not being at the exact right moment. And that gives us that window. And we like that. It's important to have that because we're not an airplane. I cannot fly around a thunderstorm. If there's a thunder hit on top of the launch pad, when I want a launch, I can't launch. And so the width of that window gives us the opportunity to accommodate weather or anything that comes up in the count that's technical with the rocket that we need to work through. When we now fly through a dense shell of spacecraft to an orbit that's just above it, the opportunities within that window get a lot smaller because of having to avoid the potential for collision.

Tory Bruno:

Now, a moment ago, I said with the tools we have now, the Space Force tracks all these objects in space that are 10 centimeters or larger. And they perform that analysis. I'm giving you a little insider baseball, nobody ever talks about in the launch industry, because it's boring. But the way this works is, okay, I want to launch over this 90-minute window. And I want to launch continuously. I want a specific opportunity, every minute. And I would actually develop trajectories for all of those increments of time. And I would hand that to the Space Force and the Space Force would compare that to all of these objects that they're tracking. And they would say, "Okay. Tory, you can go. Just there's this one five-minute patch at the back end. And there's one on the front, that you would have a collision." It might be the space station. It might be another spacecraft. It might be a piece of expended rocket from years ago, but everything else is good.

Tory Bruno:

Well, now that's not the case anymore for an orbit that's just adjacent to it. There are many, many, many fewer opportunities. And that's partly because I'm not avoiding a 10 centimeter object. There's uncertainty on the exact location of that object when the space force does their analysis. I might be avoiding a big volume around that, that represents the uncertainty of its location at the moment in time I planned to fly past it. And so we are going to have to have more precise near real-time tracking of all of those objects to continue to have practical access as the mega constellations continue to build out. And there are more and more spacecraft in low earth orbit that I have to pass through to obtain an adjacent orbit.

Tory Bruno:

So, that's really what I was talking about. And so with that context, let me come back to my specific statements. There are going to be, we think lots more people going to space, lots more people putting things in low earth orbit. And now, with that backdrop, it is really critical that we all have a common understanding of the rules of the road and that we follow them because it's kind of like the freeway. Think about driving to work or something on the highway and how terrifyingly dangerous that would be if we didn't all agree ahead of time that we drive on this side of the road, and we stop when there's a stop sign. And it would be pretty bad news if we didn't all have an understanding of that and didn't follow it. And space is like that but 10 times worse because the velocities are incredible. And if we do get in a car wreck, we don't just stop and everybody drives around us. Our cars fly apart into a million pieces and they continue zinging down the highway in an uncontrolled fashion. So it's really, really important that we do that.

Tory Bruno:

The FAA is charged with ensuring public safety. And now we are talking about an integrated air and space traffic situation that has to be managed. So you have to obey the rules. If you're given a licensed by the FAA, that license has terms in it to keep the general public safe and to keep the global commons of space usable and not filled with debris. And the way the current law is set up for enforcement, the FAA has the power to prevent a launch or stop you in the middle of a launch. They can make you stand down. If you are a company that is not obeying the rules and not abiding by the rules, they can also fine you. You can be fined $100,000. Individuals can be fined. Well, a space launch that is delayed by even a few days can cost in the millions for that delay. A $100,000 is not very impressive compared to that other number.

Tory Bruno:

And so what I was talking about is the absolute criticality that everyone obeys the common rules and that anyone who isn't going to do that is deterred by enforcement consequences that will actually matter. Does that make sense?

Irene Klotz:

Yup. Thanks Tory. That was very thorough. When the FCC granted the licenses for these mega constellations, and of course this is being replicated at other governing entities all over the world, the number of satellites in orbit didn't seem to be a factor at all. And that hasn't been a limitation on saying, "Check. Kepler, good to go. SpaceX, good to go." So, is there a limit? I mean, is the scenario you outlined about trying to put something into this very congested environment is challenging enough. I mean, is there a technical solution to this? Do you like go straight up and then come back down to the orbit you want? How can this be managed and still have all the wonderful new iPhone inventions that mega constellations promised to provide internet everywhere.

Tory Bruno:

So, the short answer is, yes, this is a problem that can be solved and yeah, it's worth solving it because these mega constellations are promising some really amazing capabilities. And so we can manage it. It's not something that can't be done and we should stop. No, not at all. These are going to be well worth it. And wow, you've been covering this a long time, Irene. You're going to be on the trajectory analysis team. Yeah, one solution would be to go up and come back down. There are others. I would suggest that sort of the framework that I'm asking people to consider is first to actually manage the physical density of the shells. So that's the first thing. The reason I would say a limit that we would run into right away and we'd say, "Oh, you can't do mega constellations because they just can't be that close together. No, but you do need to manage it. You do need to manage the density of any part of the shell, even as a function of time." So that's the first thing. We need to have analysis and study and policy around just exactly that.

Tory Bruno:

And in some cases you might have fewer spacecraft, or you might simply ask them to be over a larger depth of altitude so that they're not jammed into a tiny shell, so that they're only maybe 100 kilometers apart. And 100 kilometers sounds like a lot, but it's not if you have these big uncertainty bubbles around them, that we're also trying to fly around, which brings us to the next thing, which is much greater precision in real-time tracking of where every object is. So that that uncertainty bubble gets smaller. And that's essentially like having either many fewer spacecraft in the shell or having the shell be much larger. So that's sort of the next thing you do.

Tory Bruno:

After that, we really want... oh, and by the way, I should pause there for a minute and say that that requires cooperation of the operators. That is not only the Space Force job to somehow have better models or better radars. One of the things that we expect to see, we see now in the first mega constellation is that this spacecraft can autonomously reposition themselves in orbit to avoid colliding with one another. That's a good thing. We don't want them colliding with one another because that creates clouds of space debris. However, today the Space Force has to just observe that one of these spacecrafts has moved. And depending on how much it has moved, it might take several orbits for them to get a good fix on its new position.

Tory Bruno:

So we would want operators, responsible operators to be transparent and to share when events like that happen so that we know right away and the Space Force can get a good real-time precision track on where every object is. So that's that second thing. After that, we of course want LEO spacecraft, when they reach their end of life, to de-orbit and to do that in a controlled way so that we're not leaving dead space craft on orbit, that can't maneuver and probably will begin an uncontrolled decay, potentially colliding with something on the way down. That would be terrible because then we have a cloud of debris. And even if it doesn't, even if it manages to exit its shell and reenter, we want re-entry to always be controlled. We don't want what we saw with the Chinese booster recently, because a controlled re-entry is a very steep ascent.

Tory Bruno:

You come directly in, the trajectory is very predictable. You know where it is, and you can put it in a place that doesn't affect potentially people on the ground or air traffic that's trying to fly around it. In fact, as you know, we always de-orbit our stages from low earth orbit into the remote deep ocean of the South Pacific. In fact, to kind of a colorfully named place, the point of Nemo. It is otherwise known as the oceanic point of inaccessibility. On any given day, the people closest to that point are on the international space station. That's how remote it is. So that's where we want our space junk to go, so that it's not junk on orbit. And to do that, it means that you got to do a couple things. First, you want to invest in the testing on the ground before you launch your spacecraft so that you don't have infant mortality right after you drop it off before you were expecting it to die. And now there it is inert and in orbit.

Tory Bruno:

And then you also then want to plan to shorten artificially its life. Today, responsible spacecraft operators plan to either de-orbit their spacecraft or place it in a graveyard orbit. That means they have to save fuel. And for a typical geosynchronous spacecraft, they're cutting their revenue generating life by anywhere from three to six months in order to do that. And as we talk about the mega constellations, they're very small spacecraft and they typically are expected to have much shorter lifespans. And so whatever shortening they do, even if it's proportionate, it's still going to matter more to the actual revenue and the cost of that constellation. So it's a financial commitment to do this.

Tory Bruno:

And then last but not least, there are going to be a lot of people up there and some of them will be domestic and we want enforcement to have teeth in it. Some of them, many of them are going to be international. We're going to need international agreements that people will feel are binding and those countries will adhere to because the United States will not necessarily be even the majority of satellites in this mission role. China announced that they plan to put 13,000 up in a mega constellation. When we do our own analysis and we add up everybody that we think is credible that might follow through and get done, this grows to 50,000 spacecraft. That's an order of magnitude, more active spacecraft that are today in space. That's a lot of spacecraft de-orbiting. There'll be multiple de-orbits every day.

Irene Klotz:

So, Tory, when you came in, you had a couple big problems. We've talked about this over the years. You had Russian engines that you needed to replace. You had a new competitor that you needed to be able to do have better pricing. And then you had your ongoing missions that needed to stay perfect. So when you look out in the future, what are your new big problems?

Tory Bruno:

Oh, wow. What a great question. So, good news is we did all those things. And didn't break it. I mean, I know this isn't what you asked me, but I'll just share. The thing that kept me awake for the prior seven years was the amount of change and transformation in a company that was required to do the first two things, can put at risk the mission success record. And we count, you see we count. We go 144, we're at 144 now. The number that I have been actually personally keeping track of all this time are the number during that. And that's a different number, that's 64. And so I should say, yeah, 64. And so thank God we got through all of this. And we continued to support all the missions and we didn't break our mission success.

Tory Bruno:

So now going forward, what are the big challenges that keep me awake at night? And it's really about anticipating and being there in time with the capabilities that are going to be required of us going forward, because they're different. We talked about that in the national security space in phase three. These are big changes in the technical capability of our launch vehicle and our upper stages. And I'm going to invest money and I'm going to invest time and energy and innovation and talent. And rockets are not iPhones. You don't develop them in 18 months. Even these upgrades I'm talking about, which I kind of described were incremental, mark one, mark two, mark three, that's done deliberately. They still take a lot of time. And so if you pick the wrong one in your heading down this path, and that's the wrong path, you could be pretty far before you figure out, "Oh, that's not really what they need." And then you may or may not have time to course correct, and be there in time to be competitive.

Tory Bruno:

So, it's really exciting to have all of these new things in front of us. And it's awesome to have a space force that's putting out doctrine and collaborating with industry to give me so much more insight, but it's still a big uncertainty as you go into an environment like that.

Irene Klotz:

Thanks, Tory.

Jen DiMascio:

Thank you for joining us, Tory. And thank you for listening to another edition of Check 6. Tune in again next week. Check 6 is available for download on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play. Thanks for listening.

 

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.