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US Air Force awards SpaceX $20m contract to support its biggest spy satellites

Slipping beneath the watchful eye of many skilled defense journalists, the government contracting database FPDS.gov indicates that the US Air Force awarded SpaceX more than $20 million in November 2017 to conduct a design study of vertical integration capabilities (VIC). Describing what exactly this means first requires some background.

Vertical whaaaat?

The flood of acronyms and technical terminology that often follow activities of the Federal government should not detract from the significance of this contract award. First and foremost, what exactly is “vertical integration” and why is significant for SpaceX? Not to be confused with more abstract descriptions of corporate organization (vertical integration describes one such style), integration here describes the literal process of attaching satellite and spacecraft payloads to the rockets tasked with ferrying them to orbit.

Likely as a result of its relative simplicity, SpaceX has used a system of horizontal integration for as long as they have been in the business of launching rockets, be it Falcon 1, Falcon 9, or Falcon Heavy. In order to integrate payloads to the rocket horizontally, SpaceX has a number of horizontal integration facilities (HIF) directly beside each of their three launch pads – two in Florida, one in California. After being transported from the company’s Hawthorne, CA rocket factory, Falcon 9 and Heavy boosters, second stages, payload fairings, and other miscellaneous components are all brought into a HIF, where they are craned off of their transporters (a semi-trailer in most cases) and placed on horizontal stands inside the building.

While in the HIF, all three main components are eventually attached together (integrated). The booster or first stage (S1) has its landing legs and grid fins installed soon after arrival at the launch site, followed by the mating of the first and second stages. Once these two primary components of the rocket are attached, the entire stack – as the mated vehicle is called – is once again lifted up by cranes inside the facility and placed atop what SpaceX calls the strongback (also known as the Transporter/Launcher/Erector, or TEL). A truly massive steel structure, the TEL is tasked with carrying the rocket to the launch pad, typically a short quarter mile trek from the integration facility. Once it reaches the pad, the TEL uses a powerful hydraulic lift system to rotate itself and its rocket payload from horizontal to vertical. It may look underwhelming, but it serves to remember that a complete Falcon 9/Heavy and its TEL are both considerably more than twice as tall as a basketball court is long.

Once at the pad, the TEL serves as the rocket’s connection to the pad’s many different ground systems. Crucially, it is tasked with loading the rocket with at least four different fuels, fluids, and gases at a broad range of temperatures, as well as holding the rocket down with giant clamps at its base, providing connection points to transmit a flood of data back to SpaceX launch control. SpaceX’s relatively unique TEL technology is to some extent the foundation of the company’s horizontal integration capabilities – such a practice would be impossible without reliable systems and methods that allow the rocket to be easily transported about and connected to pad systems.

Still, after the Amos-6 mishap in September 2016, which saw a customer’s payload entirely destroyed by a launch vehicle anomaly ahead of a static fire test, SpaceX has since changed their procedures, and now conducts those static fire tests with just the first and second stages – the payload is no longer attached until after the test is completed. For such a significant decrease in risk, the tradeoff of an additional day or so of work is minimal to SpaceX and its customers. Once completed, the rocket is brought horizontal and rolled back into the HIF, where the rocket’s payload fairing is finally attached to the vehicle while technicians ensure that the rocket is in good health after a routine test-ignition of its first stage engines.

Before being connected to the rocket, the payload itself must also go through its own integration process. Recently demonstrated by a flurry of SpaceX images of Falcon Heavy and its Roadster payload, this involves attaching the payload to a payload adapter, tasked with both securing the payload and fairing to the launch vehicle. Thankfully, the fairing is far smaller than the rocket itself, and this means it can be vertically integrated with the payload and adapter. The final act of joining and bolting together the two fairing halves is known as encapsulation – at which point the payload is now snug inside the fairing and ready for launch. Finally, the integrated payload and fairing are lifted up by cranes, rotated horizontally, and connected to the top of the rocket’s second stage, marking the completion of the integration process.

A different way to integrate

Here lies the point at which the Air Force’s $20m contract with SpaceX comes into play. As a result of certain (highly classified) aspects of some of the largest military satellites, the Department of Defense (DoD) and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) prefer or sometimes outright require that their payloads remain vertical while being attached to a given rocket. The United Launch Alliance (ULA), SpaceX’s only competition for military launches, almost exclusively utilizes vertical integration for all of their launches, signified by the immense buildings (often themselves capable of rolling on tracks) present at their launch pads. SpaceX has no such capability, at present, and this means that they are effectively prevented from competing for certain military launch contracts – contracts that are often the most demanding and thus lucrative.

It’s clear that the Air Force itself is the main impetus pushing SpaceX to develop vertical integration capabilities, a reasonable continuation of the military’s general desire for assured access to orbit in the event of a vehicle failure grounding flights for the indefinite future. For example, if ULA or SpaceX were to suffer a failure and be forced to ground their rockets for months while investigating the incident, the DoD could choose to transfer time-sensitive payload(s) to the unaffected company for the time being. With vertical integration, this rationale could extend to all military satellites, not simply those that support horizontal integration.

Fittingly, the ability to vertically integrate satellites is likely a necessity if SpaceX hopes to derive the greatest possible value from its recently and successfully introduced Falcon Heavy rocket, a highly capable vehicle that the government is likely very interested in. Although the specific Air Force contract blandly labels it a “Design Study,” (FPDS.gov account required) its hefty $21 million award may well be far more money than SpaceX needs to design a solution. In fact, knowing SpaceX’s famous ability to develop and operate technologies with exceptional cost efficiency, it would not be shocking to discover that the intrepid launch company has accepted the design study grant and instead jumped head-first into prototyping, if not the construction of an operational solution. More likely than not, SpaceX would choose to take advantage of the fixed tower (known as the Fixed Service Structure, FSS) currently present at Pad 39A, atop which a crane and work platforms could presumably be attached

Intriguingly, it is a real possibility that Fairing 2.0 – its first launch scheduled to occur as early as Feb. 21 – could have been upgraded in part to support present and future needs of the Department of Defense, among numerous other benefits. Fairing 2.0’s larger size may have even been precipitated by physical requirements for competing for and dealing with the largest spysats operating by the DoD and NRO, although CEO Elon Musk’s characterization of that change as a “slightly larger diameter” could suggest otherwise. On the other hand, Musk’s offhand mention of the possibility of significantly lengthening the payload fairing is likely aimed directly at government customers in both the civil and military spheres of space utilization. Time will tell, and it certainly will not hurt SpaceX or its customers if Fairing 2.0 is also considerably easier to recover and reuse.

Ultimately, it should come as no surprise that SpaceX would attempt to leverage this contract and the DoD’s interest in ways that might also facilitate the development of the company’s futuristic BFR rocket, intended to eventually take humans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. As shown by both 2016 and 2017 iterations of the vehicle, it appears that SpaceX intends to use vertical integration to attach the spaceship (BFS) to the booster (BFR). While it’s unlikely that this Air Force contract will result in the creation of a vertical integration system that could immediately be applied to or replicated for BFS testing, the experience SpaceX would gain in the process of building something similar for the Air Force would be invaluable and essentially kill two birds with one stone.

While now outdated, SpaceX’s 2016 Mars rocket featured a giant crane used for vertical integration. BFR appears to use the same approach. (SpaceX)

Follow along live as I and launch photographers Tom Cross and Pauline Acalin cover these exciting proceedings live and in person.

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US Air Force awards SpaceX $20m contract to support its biggest spy satellites

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