Podcast: Highlights from the Space Symposium

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Credit: NASA

NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion are big-government programs trying to keep pace in a marketplace increasingly dominated by commercial industry. Meanwhile, the U.S. military is looking to build bridges to international partners, that same commercial industry and to the intelligence community.

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Rush Transcript:

Announcer:

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Jen Dimascio:

Welcome to Check 6, Aviation Week's podcast. I'm Jen Dimascio, the executive editor for Defense & Space, and I am here with two of my favorite people: Guy Norris, the senior editor for Technology, and Irene Klotz, senior editor for Space. And we're here close to the Broadmoor Hotel, the site of the Space Foundation's annual Space Symposium. It's one of the first times we've all been together since, I would say, March of 2020. Satellite 2020. It was the closing event as COVID came in and everybody went on to lockdown. So it's really interesting to be with the space crowd again and all be here together. I guess I wanted to turn it over to Irene first to ask you a little bit about what you've been picking up at the show and you have found interesting so far.

Irene Klotz:

Thanks, Jen. People are talking a lot about supply chain issues, not surprisingly. If you've tried to buy a car, you'll know that there's very few on the lots. And if you've tried to rent a car, it costs triple what it did the last time you rented a car. But it's affecting all kinds of things. Gwynne Shotwell with SpaceX was saying today or yesterday, the days get blurred, that in addition to chip shortages, they are facing a shortage of liquid oxygen, which is going to be affecting their launch schedules soon.

Irene Klotz:

Let's see what else has been going on in the space world. A lot of discussions about all the financing and the stats and the mergers. There were a couple announced during the show. Virgin Orbit is now going public. And there's still a lot of discussions about what's happening with the Space Launch System and Orion. Right now NASA has not backed off of the 2024 launch date for people on the moon. But ahead of that, things are still kind of lining up for a first launch of the Space Launch System before the end of the year from Kennedy. We learned today that they're planning on stacking the whole vehicle and getting it out to the launchpad in Florida and doing a wet dress rehearsal in November. So yeah, it's nice to be back in person.

Irene Klotz:

The other interesting thing is that they came out with the annual report of the space economy in general, and now up to $447 billion. Those are for figures ending in the end of 2020. And even during the COVID and during all the work issues and all the logistics, there was a substantial increase in space activity fueled largely by the commercial sector.

Jen Dimascio:

Wow. Okay. That's a lot. But I wanted to go back to the SLS and Orion then, because there was a press conference today that I think was very striking to Guy. So why don't you tell us why that was the case and what they talked about that made you think that.

Guy Norris:

Yeah, thanks Jen. Well, first of all, I've got to say that Irene and Jen, we're all sitting here in the hot summer of good Colorado Springs. And it's weird, because Space Symposium was always held in April and we are in August and it's been hot this week. I just wanted to point this out. Normally we'd be running between the Broadmoor and exhibits and dodging hail storms and snow.

Irene Klotz:

Snow. Yeah.

Guy Norris:

So this is kind of weird, because everybody's in sunglasses and it's super hot here. But anyway, just a bit of color about the atmosphere.

Jen Dimascio:

Yeah.

Guy Norris:

But yeah, no, you're right. We did have this very unusual press conference. What was striking, really, to Irene and myself was the fact that it was like a sort of... not PR exercise. That's the wrong thing. But it was like SLS, NASA really... NASA wasn't even there, but it was all of the major contractors part of the Space Launch System really praising this as a rocket system, America's rocket, a national strategic asset, and kind of putting a whole new color really on the development of this as a launch system and taking it really out of the context of what they see as the detractors of it, which for years have said this is a job creation scheme. Why do we spend all this money when private industry is coming up with something better and cheaper? And they're basically turning the tables on that and saying, "No, no, you're not looking at this the right way. This is a national program. It's vitally important to the grassroots of the space industry in this country." And beyond that, it's got a capability which we don't really think has been sold correctly.

Guy Norris:

And so, obviously SLS, the mission to get to the moon, as Irene's mentioned, and using that as stepping stone to Mars, is pretty well known. But what was strange about today, and I don't know, Irene, I think you and I have talked about this, was the way in which they projected that. They were sort of saying, "This is capable of so much more." It's more than the PowerPoint projections that you've seen from the Brand X's, SpaceX [inaudible 00:05:56] Blue Origin, and we're saying this is a capability that's almost ready to go and we really haven't, as a nation, had a chance to utilize it. And it's going to be available and we need to recognize that now. So it was a very, very interesting spin, wasn't it, on that.

Irene Klotz:

It was. It kind of clashes with the procurement strategies across the government, which are moving into these commercial service buys, not, "Here's the U.S. government rocket. You can use it for science, you can use it for these missions, you can go to Europa." It was even discussed how National Security might use this rocket. And throughout all of this it's like, "What?" That's not how these procurements are done anymore. Everybody's kind of moving the exact opposite direction. And you certainly don't want to set up a situation where the U.S. government is competing with the private companies who have these capabilities.

Irene Klotz:

So it is kind of cool that it exists. It's going to have a flight test relatively soon. But as far as what the future of SLS and Orion are, and they're talking about commercial versions of SLS; it just seems, from just a procurement strategy, like the ship has sailed.

Guy Norris:

Yeah.

Irene Klotz:

The DOD is not going to backpedal and get away from all the work that it's made to have two assured access to space lines and all the new companies. So there was a disconnect.

Guy Norris:

Right. And I think, Jen, that stuff exactly right. I think Irene's hit the nail on the head in a way. Because we'd seen this message for years now about NASA basically saying, "Let's go commercial for Leo," and, "We're still the go-to solution for exploration." And I think that that message hasn't changed, but what's confusing to everybody is the way that it's been executed here. Because SLS is kind of like in that middle ground, you know?

Jen Dimascio:

Well, I think of SLS as being a mission beyond commercial. If you're going to distant planets, that's an exploration mission and that's something that a nation might fund. But a commercial entity might be more reluctant to, because where's the monetary return on that.

Guy Norris:

Right. Unless it's Mars or lunar utilization, you're kind of going to these places as destinations for specific reasons. It's just exploration.

Jen Dimascio:

Like mining?

Guy Norris:

Yeah. Right. Yeah. Or developing the cislunar economy, which is supposedly out there.

Jen Dimascio:

And which could be a military mission.

Guy Norris:

And it most certainly will become a military mission, because look at DARPA and the DRACO mission.

Jen Dimascio:

Which is?

Guy Norris:

The nuclear powered vehicle specifically for cislunar operations.

Jen Dimascio:

Yeah.

Guy Norris:

So they're recognizing that it is going to be a contested environment beyond just Leo. If they're doing that, then they know that there's going to be competition for whatever resources are out there, for the strategic high ground and all of that kind of thing. As Irene says, it's like mixing the messages here. What exactly is going on?

Irene Klotz:

It's difficult for the government to paint the big picture, because the government of course is funded by Congress and SLS is a total congressional program to the point where... "Use these engines, use these boosters." NASA did not design this rocket, it was put together for them. So that's not going to go away, which is like the... don't talk about it at the press conference or ask afterwards about what about Starship? Elon Musk and SpaceX have this 400 foot rocket on a launchpad in Boca Chica, Texas that right now they don't even have authorization to have built the tower but they went ahead with it, very confident that everything will fall into place.

Irene Klotz:

So there's this split between doing things in this economic fashion, and NASA and the DOD talk a lot about that, but then they're government agencies and they get the marching orders from Congress, which funds them. And Congress has funded SLS and Orion, so it's almost like, what do you do with SLS and Orion? It's not going to go away and it is a capability that's here now. And I think the point of the contractors getting together was to say, "We're much more than just the Artemis Mission. There's all these other things."

Jen Dimascio:

Right.

Guy Norris:

Yeah.

Irene Klotz:

But if it's going to cost... I mean, look at the space shuttle. It cost, what, between $500 million and a billion dollars every time they flew the space shuttle. And truthfully, the only reason why it ended is because NASA lost a second orbiter and the safety issues became overriding. It's hard to justify these programs on cost basis. So I think this is an attempt to cast a wider net, that there are reasons to keep this big government backed program going.

Guy Norris:

Yes.

Jen Dimascio:

Well, I mean, even if you go back to the idea of supporting two contractors for commercial crew, there's a hedge against one of them failing. And also, if you have a large contractor like Boeing involved, you have the political clout that comes with it to keep the funding going, to keep the development-

Guy Norris:

There's a lot going on this whole thing. I mean, it's not just political, it's industrial, it's even social. Because as we were saying earlier, if you look at anything Blue Origin is doing, or SpaceX, it's very vertically integrated. Whereas this is classic old style NASA working through contractors, spreading this out to mom and pop shops across the country. They're basically saying there's nothing wrong with this. Yes, it is a job creation scheme, but in a good way. It's a government program. We're backing an effort here which is providing a lot of capacity, a lot of capability.

Guy Norris:

Obviously it's had its detractors, as we've noted, and I think that's what came across today, wasn't it? They were doing two things, one of which they were saying it's a massive capability, it's available now and everybody should be aware of it. And secondly, we're doing our best to get the costs down. Because you asked the question, Irene, didn't you? What about costs? And each and every one of them, well almost all of them, answered you and said, "Yeah, we want to be like 50% down." They're all anxious to really drum that message about, we know about our costs. We're doing our best. We're going to do that if you order more. It's a bit like when you go into a shop and they say, "If you spend $100, you'll save."

Jen Dimascio:

Yeah, but I mean, are they making the infrastructure push? That's a big piece of what's moving through Congress right now. But anyway, maybe they weren't.

Irene Klotz:

You mean for additional funding for SLS Orion?

Jen Dimascio:

Yeah.

Irene Klotz:

No, for NASA the big issue in the infrastructure funding is to get billions more for the human lander systems so that they could on-ramp a second company after the selection of SpaceX. There's been a lawsuit now by Blue Origin protesting the CEO's decision that upheld the NASA sole source award, and the work is now suspended again. We'll see what happens with that, but in some ways the lawsuit, intentionally or otherwise, is keeping SpaceX, at least from the government perspective, a little bit delayed in the starship development. So if and when Congress decides to authorize additional funding, Blue Origin, presumably if they would be getting it... That's a big leap, by the way. Well, maybe not. But that they would be starting on a more even keel with SpaceX. So SpaceX won't have a year's head start on them. That's what they're pretty annoyed about, among other things.

Guy Norris:

But Jen, we should talk to you about this is the first Space Symposium since the formation of Space Force in a real sense. And there are a lot of blue suits here. There's always a lot of blue suits here in Colorado Springs, but I mean this time it's a really big deal, isn't it? It's the first time everybody's been able to meet in person and talk about the new mission, and we've seen a lot of international air forces and space forces here. What are your thoughts on that? Because that's a big change, isn't it, from previous-

Jen Dimascio:

Well, the international folks are here and I think maybe a little bit less than usual, just because of COVID.

Guy Norris:

Right, yes. But-

Jen Dimascio:

But in terms of the Space Force, yes, for sure. It's their first show as a Space Force. The other day, the U.S. Space Command announced it was now initially operational. So these milestones put in place just a few years ago are finally coming into fruition. And so, yeah, we're just beginning to see what shape they might take. But in another sense a lot of that is, well, every Space Symposium, air force space acquisition renews itself somehow, and that is not a change. They're renewing themselves yet again.

Guy Norris:

One of the questions I keep having asked of me, and probably, what's the difference between Space Force and space systems sort of things? Space Command really. What's the-

Jen Dimascio:

I guess I'm not sure yet.

Guy Norris:

I mean, obviously one is-

Jen Dimascio:

They've changed the people, but the person at the head, General Guetlein, is coming over from the National Reconnaissance Agency. And I think that that is an important thing to know, because here at the conference they've been talking a lot about unity of effort across the Defense Department, the Air Force, the Space Force, the Army, the Navy, the Marines, but also to include NASA, the intelligence community and commercial.

Guy Norris:

Yeah.

Jen Dimascio:

So that's one of the big shifts, and I think they've been moving in that direction for a long time, but maybe more so this year. And so, they announced, General Raymond talked about it, and our director, Christopher Scolese talked about it, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall glanced at it. So essentially the Space Force, the NRO, and U.S. Space Command have signed this week I think a new agreement that's classified, but it's enabling closer ties between the agencies.

Jen Dimascio:

And it seems to me that every Space Symposium they do something a little bit in this area. But what was interesting to me was that the contractors thought that this might enable some better information sharing on assets that they have; that they could use data from say a satellite that they use for signals intelligence on the intelligence community side and then use that as targeting data on the defense side in an operational way.

Guy Norris:

Jen, we listened to Frank Kendall talk about this and I thought it was interesting that he sort of basically said that for years, decades, the U.S. has been so far ahead that it's not been a concern. But now Russia and China have stepped up so much in space as a contested environment that he said that one of the U.S.' greatest strategic assets was its international relationships. And he made a big play of that, didn't he?

Jen Dimascio:

He did.

Guy Norris:

Yeah.

Jen Dimascio:

He did. Yeah. And that kind of washes over me sometimes, so I'm glad that you're pointing it out. Yeah.

Guy Norris:

Right. Yeah.

Jen Dimascio:

Right. There's some real significance to that.

Guy Norris:

Yeah, I think so. Of course we would have seen more people here had they been able to get visas.

Jen Dimascio:

Right. But you've seen in the past year or two years a lot of countries step up their own space forces, step up their own military space capabilities. If not a space force the way the U.S. is doing it, a new space command or a new way of doing it. Italy is buying from Virgin Galactic. They're launching their own satellites there.

Guy Norris:

Yeah. Right. Yeah, it's been amazing really, hasn't it?

Jen Dimascio:

Yeah.

Guy Norris:

Of course the U.S. still absolutely dominates in that particular regime, but we can see that there are a lot of serious... They're taking the threat seriously and we can see that here at the Broadmoor this time.

Jen Dimascio:

Yes, we can.

Guy Norris:

Yeah.

Jen Dimascio:

Yeah.

Guy Norris:

So we should think about what sunscreen we're going to put on for tomorrow, right?

Jen Dimascio:

You guys are telling me. I already look sunburned.

Guy Norris:

You do.

Jen Dimascio:

Anyway, I think we've got to wrap up there, so don't miss a single episode of Check 6. Subscribe to it, please. It's available on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Stitcher, and Spotify. Thanks a lot. Bye

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.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, based in Colorado Springs. Before joining Aviation Week in 2007, Guy was with Flight International, first as technical editor based in the U.K. and most recently as U.S. West Coast editor. Before joining Flight, he was London correspondent for Interavia, part of Jane's Information Group.

Comments

1 Comment
Interesting. Thank you.