SpaceX to Use Previously Flown Boosters to Launch GPS Satellites

According to a recently rewritten contract with the U.S. Space Force, SpaceX will reuse previously flown main boosters to launch two GPS satellites. This is a departure from previous U.S. military policies that did not allow for reused boosters or retrieval of flown boosters for GPS satellite launches.

The Space Force says that this new revision will save the military $52.7 million in launch costs over the course of two launches. The change will impact the fifth and sixth launches in this series of launches of GPS satellites. Three satellites have already been launched and the fourth, scheduled for September 29, will feature an attempt to recover the main booster for possible reuse.

“I am thrilled to welcome SpaceX’s innovative reuse into the National Security Space Launch program,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a statement.

The launches with previously flown boosters are scheduled to occur in 2021. Once the current series launches ends, the military plans to award a contract for what it calls Phase 2 of its planned upgrades to the GPS satellite constellation. The Phase 2 GPS satellites are already being built by Lockheed Martin and will bring the total of new satellites in this constellation up to 10 once they are launched. The Space and Missile Systems Center has hinted that there is a high chance that the launch contract will go to SpaceX and will allow for the reuse of more boosters.

“[The modified contract] will set us up for our partnership with SpaceX for Phase 2 over the next year,” said SMC’s Falcon Systems and Operations Division chief Walt Lauderdale.

Cost Savings Good for Taxpayers

Spending on the U.S. military often seems to be the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. In 2019, military spending accounted for 64.5% of the U.S. discretionary budget at $730 billion. This is more than the next ten countries combined in total military spending. A savings of $52.7 million might seem insignificant in comparison, but can be seen as a good sign that some parties in the military have an interest in reducing wasteful spending. This is good for taxpayers and advocates of government-run social programs who say that more tax revenue should be used to help the American people.

The modification in SpaceX’s contract with the Space Force does not reduce the number of launches, but does allow for better cost efficiency, possibly to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars saved. Refurbishing and reusing boosters is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than building a new one from scratch every time a new satellite needs to be launched.

The decision to reuse boosters for the last two boosters has the added bonus of letting officials in the Space Force observe SpaceX’s cost-saving processes before it commits to the new contract for Phase 2. The Space Force has agreed to delay launch of the fifth and sixth GPS satellites to as early as June of 2021 in order to ensure design validation and better understand the process by which SpaceX refurbishes rockets for reuse.