The United States Must Consolidate Ultra-Low-Cost Access to Space (ULCATS)

At present, the United States stands at a moment of opportunity.  Our nation has a clear lead on re-usable launch vehicles (RLVs).  The highly visible demonstrations of SpaceX and Blue Origin are just the observable portion of a much larger iceberg of commercial ambitions and industrial capabilities.  With the right policies, regulation, incentives, and anchor contracts we can consolidate this early lead into a US-owned, fully re-usable launch system capable of simultaneously lowering the price of access to space and increasing the frequency of access to space.


SpaceX’s Three Successfully-Landed Falcon 9 Rockets in Hangar 39A at Kennedy Space Center
(Photo by SpaceX)

Power and control in any medium begins with access.[i]  If you can’t get there you can’t do anything in the medium.[ii]  For seapower that meant ships, for airpower that meant airplanes.  Just like in the other mediums, spacepower is anything an actor can do in space.  More access means you can do more and have greater freedom of action.  RLVs are not just a toy of billionaires and space tourists, they constitute an important arrow in our quiver of posture, deterrence and compellence.

One key to avoiding great power war is to manage peacetime economic and military competition such that an adversary never feels they have such a certain advantage they can achieve their ends, or is so untouchable as to avoid unbearable costs.  A key lesson we learned from the Cold War is to invest in areas of strength that require adversaries to invest disproportionately to keep up or counter.[iii]

RLV technology—ULCATS—is one such cost-imposing investment.  We should move now with policy and SpaceAct / Other Transaction type authorities to accelerate and consolidate our lead.[iv]

In round numbers, a fully re-usable system is expected to drop the cost per sortie ten-fold.  That means that we can sortie ten times for the same cost. Here are five ways in which maturing ultra-low-cost-access-to-space will prove transformational for spacepower—altering the key LIMFACS and shifting a key military competition in our favor.

First, more sorties at lower cost unlock a virtuous cycle of fast innovation.  Satellites can be tested at lower cost and at greater frequency and we can afford to refresh constellations more often.

Second, available rockets open the possibility of launch on demand, allowing us to react and innovate inside our adversary’s OODA loop.[v]

Third, low cost and re-usability encourage a high launch rate, which makes regular (for example, weekly) sorties attractive.  A highly predictable launch schedule creates many opportunities for secondary payloads to test components or new satellite designs.

Forth, an agile and responsive launch system enables rapid reconstitution should an adversary seek to remove our eyes, ears and communication relays in space.  Even better, the knowledge that such an attack will be ineffective because of our ability to reconstitute serves as a form of deterrence by denial.

Fifth, a responsive launch system provides a capable retaliation system.  Should an adversary decide to violate international norms of non-interference and take warfare to space, a fully re-usable system creates on-demand capabilities to retaliate in kind, with a lighter hand and far greater precision, or with a heavy hand, rapidly deploying an armada of kinetic kill vehicles.  Coupled with a “No First Use” policy, such a system could be highly stabilizing.[vi]

Imagine how enabling such a system would be to our operations.

Now imagine how disheartening such a system is to our adversaries.  They are only now beginning to put on orbit similar capabilities, and now we will be able to innovate to stay ahead that much faster.

They are just now becoming clever enough to hide from our predictable, periodic assets—now they will have to deal with a capability that can sortie on demand.

They have just invested a tremendous amount to be able to negate our satellite infrastructure—now we will be able to put it back, denying that advantage.

They believe they finally have escalation dominance—now in a flash we could reverse it.

They have invested in all sorts of systems to deny access to their skies at tremendous disproportional cost, now they will have to spend oh so much more!

They can try to field a similar system, hoping to be a fast follower, but they are playing against America’s advantages.  By the time they succeed in launching such a system, we will have learned how best to use it.  By the time they begin to use it, we will have moved through multiple cycles of innovation and be onto the next big thing.

Ultra-low-cost access to space–ULCATS—it is where US spacepower needs to go!

Lt Col Peter Garretson is an instructor at Air University.  He leads the Air University Space Horizon’s Elective, and recently won the SECDEF D3 Innovation contest.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

[i] For a terrific discussion on controlling the space medium, read Dr. Ev Dolman’s Astropolitic.

[ii] For another terrific discussion of spacepower, read Dr./Maj Brent Ziarnick’s Developing National Spacepower

[iii] See Krepinevich & Watt’s The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of the Modern American Defense Strategy.

[iv] NASA used SpaceAct to create their Commercial Orbital Transportation (COTS) system, which includes SpaceX’s Falcon 9.  DARPA uses Other Transaction Authority (OTA) in a similar manner.  This is a sort of partnership where industry has skin in the game.

[v] See the writings of Col John Boyd, USAF, collected here:

[vi] See the discussion by Elbridge Colby,


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