Space Force Tracking On-Orbit Refueling Progress For NSSL Phase 3

Credit: Orbit Fab

COLORADO SPRINGS—The U.S. Space Force is tracking the development of on-orbit maneuvering and refueling in the commercial industry to inform how the technology could shape its plans for future national security launches.

“Traditionally, we’ve launched direct to orbit,” says Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy, Space Systems Command’s (SSC) program executive officer of assured access to space. “That was pretty much the only way. On-orbit maneuver and refueling opens up a new avenue. It’s unproven yet, but it looks pretty clearly like we’re headed in that direction.” 

Purdy spoke at the Space Symposium here.

This comes as SSC is moving ahead with National Security Space Launch-Phase 3, the plan to buy launches for national security missions beginning in 2025. The phase two contract was awarded in 2020 to SpaceX and ULA, and phase three could open up the launches to new providers depending on the requirements.

Purdy says the development of on-orbit maneuver and refueling is “one of the many trade-offs we’re looking at for phase three.

“Where will on-orbit refueling be in that time period? Will the technology be mature? Will we have demonstrated examples? Or will we have to develop a structure that looks to on-ramp some of that in the future as the technology matures,” Purdy says.

The development of standards for refueling will be critical, as SSC hopes that government standards will be the same as commercial so the two communities can work together. 

“In addition to prototyping, we know that commercial industry is working their own on-orbit maneuvering, on-orbit refueling activity. So we’re actually watching those as well,” Purdy says. “We’re talking with those industry partners to understand what they’re doing, to talk about how that would interface with our business plans.”

This, in turn, goes into SSC’s program offices and the Space Force’s Space Warfighting Analysis Center to understand how it can feed into the Space Force’s architecture, he says.

Last month, startup Orbit Fab received a $12 million contract from the U.S. Air Force’s AFWERX office to integrate its Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RATFI) refueling power onto military space assets. 

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.