Troy Meink, National Reconnaissance Office principle deputy director. (Photo: Breaking Defense/Theresa Hitchens)

SATELLITE 2024 — The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) expects that the next round of launches to be procured through the Space Force’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) will be even cheaper than current rates, which already represent a major drop from prices only a decade ago, according to the spy satellite agency’s deputy director.

“We are confident that the launch costs will continue to come down under the NSSL Phase 3 acquisition and are working closely with the Space Force on that,” Troy Meink, NRO principal deputy director responsible for day-to-day operations, told the Satellite 2024 Conference in Washington, DC, today.

“As everybody knows, the cost of launch has come down dramatically. Where it used to be many hundreds of millions of dollars to get something into space, we’re now seeing for larger rockets well under $100 million, and $10 million dollars or less for some of the smaller rockets,” he said.

Under NSSL Phase 3, the Space Force will begin in fiscal 2025 to contract with commercial launch providers for missions that will fly starting in FY27. For the first time, the Space Force intends to select three vendors of heavy-lift rockets, rather than only two as in previous phases, to compete on a case-by-case basis for launch contracts though FY29.

At the moment, the three big players in the NSSL Phase 3 contest are the current NSSL Phase 2 contractors, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA), as well as newcomer Blue Origin owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. But ULA is up for sale, possibly to Blue Origin, and its Vulcan Centaur rocket has yet to pass its second required qualification test to stay in the race. Blue Origin’s New Glenn, meanwhile, has yet to even make it off the launch pad. This leaves SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy the only one of the competitors to be ready to loft NSSL Phase 3 payloads.

Meink explained that the decline in launch costs is one of two critical factors in allowing NRO to begin to diversify its on-orbit force structure to include both “large and small satellites” using multiple orbital domains — a change that will enable the agency to “provide greater revision rates, increased coverage and more timely information,” as well as “make our collection more agile and eliminate single points of failure.”

“This significant reduction in cost to entry for launch not only opened the market for a new commercial space companies, but it has made new architecture approaches affordable to the government that were not a decade ago,” he stressed.

The second factor, Meink said, is the improvement in “digital technology” spearheaded by the commercial sector.

“It seems obvious, but I still don’t think people appreciate how big of a shift has been over the last decade. It opened source architectures and capabilities that did not exist. A decade ago, the technology wasn’t ready” to support “proliferated” constellations, he said.

For example, Meink explained that NRO “can now build the entire payload” of a satellite “for about the weight of what our power conditioning box used to be 10 to 15 years ago. It is a dramatic change.”

A power conditioning and distribution unit is used to convert solar cell power into usable electricity on a satellite.