Wilson: AF Requesting 20 Percent Increase for Space, SpaceX to Launch Next X-37B

Wilson: AF Requesting 20 Percent Increase for Space, SpaceX to Launch Next X-37B

Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) Heather Wilson told a Senate committee today that the service is requesting a 20 percent increase for its space programs in FY2018.  She also revealed that SpaceX will launch the next X-37B mission in August, the first time one of the uncrewed spaceplanes will launch on a vehicle other than a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V.   She and Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein further reinforced the Air Force paradigm that space no longer is a benign environment, but a warfighting domain.

Wilson was sworn in as SecAF on May 16 and testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) along with three other top Air Force officials (including Goldfein) the next day about military space programs.  

Today’s annual Air Force posture hearing was much broader and encompassed all Air Force activities. The preponderance of the hearing focused on aircraft and personnel.  In her opening statement, however, Wilson chose space as one of her three main themes.  The others were readiness and modernization.  Regarding the space portion of the service’s portfolio, she said the FY2018 budget request includes a 20 percent increase for space, but did not go into details.

During an exchange with Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) over whether U.S. space capabilities are sufficiently resilient and responsive, both praised the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office and its rapid acquisition authorities.  ORS is headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, which Heinrich represents in the Senate and Wilson represented in the House from 1998-2009.  As the discussion continued, Heinrich also urged Wilson to consider using small launch vehicles from companies like Virgin Galactic, Vulcan Aerospace and Orbital ATK to ensure more distributed, responsive and flexible access to space.

In her reply, Wilson held up a model of the X-37B spaceplane and said it “will be going up again, it’s a reusable vehicle, and it will be going up again on top of a SpaceX launcher in August.”  

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson shows model of X-37B spacecraft at Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, June 6, 2017.  Screengrab from committee webcast.

She added that Goldfein had a model of a cubesat with him and overall spacecraft are “getting smaller, able to be put on multiple different platforms, and there’s some very exciting things happening in commercial space that bring the opportunity for assured access to space at a very competitive price.”

The Air Force has two Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles (OTVs), each of which has been launched two times.  What they do in space is highly classified, but they remain on orbit for very long periods of time.  They look like miniature space shuttle orbiters.  The most recent flight ended last month after 718 days in space, landing at Kennedy Space Center for the first time.  KSC was the launch site for all of NASA’s space shuttle missions and almost all of them landed there as well.  The Air Force is now using some of the former shuttle facilities for the X-37B, including the runway and a processing facility. The previous X-37B launches were on Atlas V rockets from Cape Canaveral, FL with landings at Vandenberg AFB, CA.

The fact that the Air Force chose SpaceX instead of ULA for the next X-37B launch does not appear to have been publicly disclosed until now.

Goldfein referred to the close cooperation between the Air Force and NASA in space, thanking Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for his work on the “NASA strategic plan,” a probable reference to the NASA Transition Authorization Act recently signed into law.  Cruz chairs the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees NASA.

Cruz asked if the 20 percent increase in Air Force space funding, which he said would bring the total to $7.7 billion, is sufficient. 

Wilson said that some of the items on the Air Force’s “unfunded requirements list” that was sent to Congress are space-related, including $200 million for “space defense”.   She concluded that “I think there’s a lot of progress [with the requested increase] but there’s no question there’s much more to be done.”

Goldfein ended the hearing by reiterating the Air Force’s view that space is no longer a benign environment, but a “domain from which we have to be prepared to fight and win and … maintain space superiority, if war extends into space or starts in space.  … I align with General John Hyten [Commander of STRATCOM] who has said there’s no such thing as war in space, there’s just war.  But if it extends into space, we’ve got to be ready.”

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