SpaceX Launches ‘National Security’ Missions

GPS III SV05 will launch on a Falcon 9 Block 5 using a reused booster stage, marking a first for a military satellite. On 17 June, SpaceX launched the second of five GPS III satellites after being awarded the contract to carry them into orbit. The rocket used the same booster that launched its predecessor GPS III SV04 last November. This marks the first time the military entrusted a high-priority national security payload with a ride on a reused first stage.

Follow us:  

The touchdown of the booster, eight-and-a-half minutes after lift-off marked the 88th recovery of a Falcon rocket booster since 2015, but the mission had not yet achieved its primary objective. After flying into the communications range of Space Force ground stations in Hawaii and California, the rocket deployed the GPS satellite at 17:38 GMT, nearly an hour-and-a-half after launch. Lockheed Martin, who built the satellite, confirmed ground teams established contact with the new GPS spacecraft shortly after separation from the Falcon 9 rocket. Over the next one to two weeks, the satellite will use its own orbit-raising engine to manoeuvre into a circular Medium Earth Orbit 12,550 miles above Earth.

“In preparation for this first-time event we’ve worked closely with SpaceX to understand the refurbishment processes and are confident that this rocket is ready for its next flight,” Dr. Walter Lauderdale, deputy mission director of the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missiles Systems Centre, told reporters during a briefing before the lauch.

Notably, Space Force required that SpaceX use the same booster to launch SV05 that launched the SV04 satellite. But Dr. Lauderdale said Space and Missiles Systems Centre has “no other constraints” for how the company uses the Falcon 9 booster in the future, and highlighted that Space Force is also open to flying national security payloads that launched on boosters from non-military missions.

“We continue to work with [SpaceX] and, looking ahead to the SV06 mission next year … we’ll be working with them as to what boosters are available,” said Dr. Lauderdale. “We are certainly open to using other boosters not just ones that have flown [for Space Force].”

The Pentagon has awarded SpaceX five of the six GPS III satellite launch contracts to date; with the GPS III SV02 mission the only one launched by competitor United Launch Alliance – the rocket-building joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Those five launch contracts total $469.8 million and originally did not include the option for SpaceX to reuse its Falcon 9 rockets. Last year, Space and Missiles Systems Centre modified the contracts for SpaceX’s next two GPS III satellite launches to allow reuse, a move that the military estimated will save about $64 million over four missions.

The move marks another step forward in the U.S. military embracing SpaceX’s practice of reusing rockets, as the government previously required the company to use new rockets and discard the boosters in the ocean – the traditional practice in the launch industry. Lauderdale said the military has been working since 2016 on certifying the use of reused rocket hardware on national security satellite launches. SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, the Space Force’s two primary space launch providers, can propose to use previously flown hardware on all national security missions under new contracts awarded last August. So far, only SpaceX flies recycled rocket stages.

SpaceX has flown one of the Falcon 9 boosters in its fleet 10 times, and several others have completed five or more missions. A military launch in 2019 of a Falcon Heavy rocket, used two previously flown side boosters. However, that mission carried experimental technology demonstration satellites and not an operational payload.

Technicians with the 5th Space Launch Squadron at Cape Canaveral follow SpaceX’s refurbishment procedures of reused rockets. Unlike many commercial satellite operators, the Space Force performs additional oversight of its launch contractors due to the high cost and criticality of its payloads for U.S. national security. The work of SpaceX included evaluating the remaining life of a Falcon 9 booster by analysing the stress it encounters during launch and re-entry back into the atmosphere. “Working with SpaceX, we evaluate their inspection processes as well as what they have done to evaluate the hardware after it returns,” Lauderdale said.

Lockheed Martin has contracts with the Space Force to build up to 32 GPS 3-series and GPS 3 Follow-On satellites. Construction of the first eight GPS 3 satellites is covered in a 2008 contract valued at $3.6 billion. Military officials were unable to provide an exact cost for the GPS 3 SV05 spacecraft, but the average cost of each satellite in the 2008 purchase amounts to nearly $500 million in inflation-adjusted dollars.

GPS III SV05 replaces a nearly 17-year-old satellite and joins 31 operational GPS satellites orbiting about 20,200 kilometres above the Earth providing positioning, navigation, and timing signals to billions of users around the world.

By Kevin Klemann

Our partners