The Elara Edge: Expert Insights on Space Security 

Episode 12: Adversaries’ Launch Cadence Highlights Need for Assured Access to Space

Host: Scott King 

Subject Matter Expert: Elara Nova Senior Principal Advisor, Gen Lester L. Lyles 

00:02 – 01:47 

At the beginning of 2024, peer adversaries of the United States each projected an ambitious launch cadence for putting space assets into orbit: China has planned 100 launches, while Russia has planned 40 of its own. And due to what is often blurred lines between military, commercial, and civil space programs for these nation-states, the true nature of these launches can be difficult to ascertain.  

Meanwhile, through its own National Security Space Launch program, or NSSL, the United States has planned 21 launches for the year 2024 – nearly double its launch cadence from the previous year. All together, these escalating launch cadences signify the operational imperative to maintain “Assured Access to Space,” or AATS, that has been a trademark of the United State’s space superiority for the past several decades. 

Welcome to “The Elara Edge: Expert Insights on Space Security.” I’m your host Scott King. Today’s episode is the third of three installments of the Special Edition Series marking the first anniversary of Elara Nova as an emerging leader in national security space. 

Today’s guest is retired General Lester L. Lyles, senior principal advisor at Elara Nova: The Space Consultancy. General Lyles has served in several prominent positions over his 35-year military career with the United States Air Force, including roles such as Commander of Air Force Materiel Command, Commander of Space and Missile Systems Center, Director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, and Vice Chief of Staff at Headquarters, U.S. Air Force 

In total, General Lyles brings over 50 years of military and civilian expertise in tactical aircraft, space-launch and missile defense systems. 

General Lyles, welcome to the show! 

01:48 – 01:49 

Okay, Scott, thank you very much.  

01:50 – 01:58 

Thank you for joining us today, Sir. So first and foremost, can you define what assured access to space is and why it’s a critical imperative for military operations? 

01:59 – 02:46 

Assured access to space is when we have payloads, satellites, instruments, etc., that we need to get into space, particularly those for national security purposes, if you will, that it’s assured that the launch will be successful, that we will have no difficulty getting that particular payload or payloads – to get them into space so they can operate and perform their missions. 

Building satellites, developing satellites is very, very expensive. Launching satellites is also very, very expensive. And having the notion and the culture, if you will, of assured access means that we, particularly the customers and military customers, can be assured that when it’s time to launch, time to get a capability into space – it will go, it will get into orbit, it will function properly, whatever that might be.

02:47 – 02:52 

Thank you, Sir, and can you please describe the Department of Defense’s historical approach to getting satellites on-orbit? 

02:53 – 04:36 

Well, it really is a very, very long history. It goes back really to post-Sputnik when the United States started developing its capabilities to get satellites into space. So the United States had adopted, essentially its old ICBMs into space launch vehicles to put all things into orbit.   

And over the years, we’ve evolved it to a series of activities. The United States was at one point on the space shuttle, if you will, for all of its launch activities, both for national security and commercial and civil through NASA. The Challenger accident changed the minds on that and after the Challenger accident, the United States Department of Defense started developing a new family of launch vehicles. 

When that occurred in 1986, 85-86 timeframe, there was a post-Challenger development of space systems, and I was assigned to be responsible for the Space Launch Recovery program out at Los Angeles, developing a new family of expendable launch vehicles. 

We were developing the new Atlas System – the Atlas II – the Titan IV, which was a new vehicle responsible for heavy lift launches using the old Atlas vehicle and it just evolved from there.  

Subsequent to that, we eventually evolved to the EELV program. We started developing a Delta IV, to developing an Atlas V, and just a series, if you will, of evolutions to launch vehicles to be able to get heavier and heavier satellites in orbit and hopefully to do it more reliably and perhaps a little bit cheaper.

04:37 – 04:48 

Sir, you mentioned the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program – or EELV – can you describe what predicated the United States Air Force to initiate that program and identify its main objectives? 

04:49 – 06:31 

The main objectives at the time was to develop primarily a family of launch vehicles that would be capable of meeting the entire spectrum of needs, of weight classes, if you will, for national security space launches.  

EELV ended up selecting four contractors in the 1996 timeframe to begin the development of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles with the intent at the time to down-select to one provider and during that timeframe, the United States, as it has done a couple of times in the past, anticipated a very robust commercial launch market that would provide a large, long sufficient rate of launch vehicles. So it would be competitive in terms of cost and helpful, if you will, for us to be able to provide those low-cost, reliable launch systems across a broad industrial base.  

It turns out that never really came into fruition at that particular time and so the EELV program had to change its acquisition strategy. They changed from a planned down-select to a single contractor and a standard Air Force development program, to a dual-commercialized approach, involving primarily the Atlas V and the Delta IV. 

And through other changes, etc. We ended up with the company today that’s called ULA for developing and launching variants of the Atlas V and variants of the Delta IV. So the evolution of the EELV program has changed over the years, in part because of responding to the market or the lack of a market – as what we originally thought and responding to different contracting methods that the Department of Defense wanted to utilize. 

06:32 – 06:45 

And sir, what were some of the main accomplishments of the EELV program and the United Launch Alliance – or ULA – the dual-commercial organization that you mentioned which emerged from this program as a solution for our national security space launch needs? 

06:46 – 08:07 

You know, as I think back on that particular time and I looked at what has happened with history, the accomplishments in some respects were really to stabilize the launch vehicle market. 

We had two primary providers, Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Boeing had acquired McDonnell Douglas, which had developed the Delta family of vehicles and Lockheed Martin had the Atlas launch vehicles. And having the EELV program and having ULA stabilized the market.  

The providers knew that there would be at least a steady market for national security, if not one that they could count on for commercial or civil launches and so it ensured that we in the United States would have a market and a capability to launch things and wouldn’t have to automatically defer to foreign sources like the French Ariane vehicle which was a competitor or even a Japanese launch vehicle which was competing against us, or having to use Russian systems to get to the International Space Station. 

We wanted to have our own capability. We’re just now where we will not have to rely just upon Russian Soyuz rockets to get our astronauts and others to the International Space Station. So that stability that came out of the EELV program set the mark, if you will, for other things that we’re planning to do today. 

08:08 – 08:35 

Thank you, Sir, and it’s important to note that while ULA and the EELV program – in some respects – stabilized the DOD’s national security space launch capability and established an element of assured access to space, but the program in place today is now called the Nation Security Space Launch program – or NSSL.  

Can you explain how the National Security Space Launch program came to be, especially as it looks to advance on the objectives originally set forth by the EELV program? 

08:36 – 09:42 

Well, you know, the name National Security Space Launch came out of the EELV program. It was a new name, if you will, for the same beast in my opinion.  

And I think in some respects the aims and objectives are the same. There have been a series of different phases associated with the program and different acquisition strategies associated with it. There have been congressional language defining specifically the kinds of emphasis and I think it was the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, NDAA, that directed the name change from EELV to NSSL to reflect the consideration of both reusable and expendable launch vehicles in future solicitations. 

So that NDAA language in 2019 changed the name, changed the emphasis to both expendable and reusable, and the program has grown since then. So to me, Scott, EELV, National Security, are part of the same program with an evolution to make sure that national security was not lost in our launch capabilities.

09:43 – 10:18 

And Sir, to take a little bit more of a nuanced focus here: The National Security Space Launch program – or NSSL – is delineated between two “lanes.” 

Lane One is tailored for smaller, up-and-coming launch providers who may not yet be necessarily certified to fly more rigorous defense missions. Meanwhile Lane Two is intended for the legacy or established launch providers that can reliably meet the challenging demands and requirements of our national security space launches. 

Can you share your perspective on how this two-lane approach caters to the growing and evolving commercial space launch market?

10:19 – 10:47 

That’s, I think that’s a great distinction between the two. You have more mature, experienced launch providers in Lane Two and there’s now seem to be a panoply of different companies that have different ideas on how you would develop a I’ll call it the old term, ‘small launch vehicles,’ if you will, that can get payloads into primarily low-Earth orbit and provide a cheaper access capability for the United States and the need for that is still very, very profound. 

10:48 – 11:05 

Thank you for elaborating on that, Sir. And so the National Security Space Launch program added 21 launches for 2024, which nearly doubles its launch cadence from the previous year.  

What does this say about the need for a reliable and secure launch capability, in conjunction with a more frequent launch cadence? 

11:06 – 12:08 

It says, really exactly what we, the national security apparatus, have realized for years. Your first question about assured access to space – that increase to 21 shows that there’s confidence that the assurance part has been realized. And I will tell you. You can’t see me doing this, but I’m knocking on wood as an old launch developer who has seen both the good, the bad and the ugly associated with launch. 

We’ve always said in the past that launch is a black art. We said that tongue in cheek, if you will. But the fact and the need for having something that would get us into space is still very, very much needed.  

And confidence now shown by the national security apparatus writ large that we, for the most part, have achieved that and have been very successful, increasing the launch cadence to being able to do it in an assured basis and with some sort of cost-efficiency that increase up to 21 to me says, I hate to say we’re there, because I’ve seen so many things happen in the past, but for the most part we are achieving our goal.

12:09 – 12:13 

Can you elaborate on what you mean, Sir, by the good, bad and ugly of launches? 

12:14 – 13:24 

Well, going back in my history, I would never forget a launch of a Titan III launch vehicle which led to the development of the Titan IV heavy launch vehicle that my organization at SMC was responsible for. 

Now, I will never forget being in the meetings with the leadership of the NRO where my team, at SMC, guaranteed to them that their very important classified, billion-dollar payload was going to be able to get into space. 

Needless to say, that particular launch was not successful. And I will never forget the very derisive note I got from the NRO, essentially parroting the comment that our organization said was that we guarantee we’re going to get there. And that note was accompanied with a picture of the fireball as that particular launch vehicle exploded shortly after its launch from Cape Canaveral. 

I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly in launch activities. And we can today say that we have assured access to space, but you could never relax and take your eye off the ball in terms of doing all the things that are necessary to ensure that mission success is going to take place. 

13:25 – 13:36 

And, Sir, to take that just one more step further – what makes launching an asset into space so inherently difficult, in terms of all the variabilities that need to be considered to ensure that the launch is successful? 

13:37 – 14:18 

Well, you said the right word variabilities. Everything on a launch vehicle needs to be looked at, developed originally, but looked at and examined with quality assurance, with mission assurance as the key objective that everything has been done exactly according to specifications. 

There’s just too many, that can cause a failure and so ‘mission assurance’ has been sort of the buzzword we’ve always used. And looking at and examining that with lots of reviews by experts, that everything has been done according to specification, according to the right processes, before we give the final go signal for a launch. 

14:19 – 14:27 

Thank you, Sir, and so China is projected to hold 100 space launches in 2024. What does this say about the emerging threat environment in space? 

14:28 – 15:32 

It says that the threat is very, very robust. China has it’s own assured access to space capabilities, as does Russia. But the fact that they’re expecting to hold 100 space launches means that we need to be able to, in some respects, have eventually developed that same sort of capability at that kind of launch cadence, particularly for national security that this one, peer competitor has announced and is actually demonstrating, if you will. One hundred space launches and obviously not all of those will be national security.  

However, as we know with the Chinese, everything they do has some aspects of national security. And what this says about, the emerging threat environment, is that it’s not emerging, it’s actually here and we could keep pace in terms of cost, in terms of reliability, and in terms of that term, again, assured access so that we can maintain our strategic advantage in space that we so much have come to depend on in the United States.  

15:33 – 15:46 

And so considering this threat environment that we see today, especially from China, how can the Space Force and its commercial partners ensure that the U.S., as you say, not only keeps pace but maintains that strategic advantage in the space domain? 

15:47 – 16:38 

Well, the best answer to that question is to maintain the investment in our space launch capability, both the Lane One and Lane Two, and in some cases put additional resources into encouraging innovative launch capabilities, innovative launch activities, just to make sure we can keep pace with something like 100 launches. 

That’s again, I’m floored by that, every time I think of that kind of capability. And I know we may never know for sure. I know that all of those 100 will be successful. But there are clearly indications that the past year as an example. There have been failures in the launch activities with some of which we know about and hear about, some of which we may never hear about. 

But that peer competitor can say and do that means that we can’t just rest on our laurels. We have to continue the investment into our own indigenous capabilities to do that. 

16:39 – 17:07 

Sir, you bring up an interesting point there in that the threat environment is requiring greater investment in different and innovative launch capabilities. 

As an example, the Space Force last year conducted its Victus Nox Tactically Responsive Space mission, where they’re seeking to field, launch and operate space assets on operational and responsive timelines.  

Can you describe how the Tactically Responsive Space mission – or TacRS – fits into the greater National Security Space Launch mission? 

17:08 – 18:31 

Well, it satisfies not only the aspect of assured access, but rapid access, if you will, for operational needs. We now have and have shown that we could do a program like Victus Nox, but it’s taken some time to get people to really invest in and to develop the capabilities to respond to tactical needs. I dare say if China is able to launch a 100 space launches, they’ve demonstrated that they can respond to operational needs or they’re hoping to demonstrate that with their 100 launches. 

We need to be able to have the capability to rapidly put something into space to fill a tactical need, not just strategic, a tactical need and be able to do it rapidly. That is a whole family, not just of launch vehicles, but on small satellites, if you will, proliferated capabilities on satellites, mission control systems and those sort of things have to be rapid and responsive. 

And so, the Victus Nox program, the whole family of ideas of tactically responsive space involves everything associated with it, from requirements,  to command and control, to satellite development, small satellite development to the actual launches of small vehicles to get a capability up rapidly, once we see we have an operational need, we call that usually tactically responsive space. 

18:32 – 18:51 

And, Sir, earlier we discussed the variabilities that make the national security launch so difficult. So in terms of doing this on operational or responsive timelines, how does that raise the stakes in terms of adding more risk and emphasizing a greater imperative to check all those boxes, so to speak, in ensuring that the launch is successful?

18:52 – 20:30 

It really just means that looking at every element that’s involved in launch, in particularly tactically responsive space launch. As I just said a few minutes ago, everything needs to be rapid. Everything needs to be able to be done very, very quickly. You can’t depend on a, even a decision process that’s slow. If you need to get something responsively into space, you can’t have a slow command and control capability. 

You can’t have a slow, even budget process, if you will, in terms of a tactically responsive space – that every element is examined, that it is a total system to use a term that engineers always use for any sort of capability that we looked at every element involved in such a need and we have honed the requirements, we’ve honed the processes associated with it so that we could rapidly, literally put something into space to respond to an immediate need. 

The risks go up significantly. My hope, and I think that’s probably obvious, that today, as demonstrated by Victus Nox, my hope is that we’ve identified the risk sufficiently. We’ve identified ways we could mitigate the risk, but do that in a rapid manner. That we’ve even identified the way we can have resiliency for having multiple launch capabilities to be able to get something into space quickly.  

That’s just one element of that activity, is not performing properly or is not working in the manner that we could quickly switch to another and still be able to get the capability into space.

20:31 – 20:44 

Thank you, Sir, and one more question on the tactically responsive space component of this conversation and that is – in what ways does this emerging need to be able to launch on responsive timelines, coincide with this escalating threat environment in space? 

20:45 – 21:08 

To me, they go hand in glove. It’s like any sort of domain, same way in space. We just need to be able to have the ability for the United States to counter or respond to any potential peer threat in a rapid manner so that we don’t lose control of an area where we’ve always been the ones that in the past that had the superior capabilities. 

21:09 – 21:18 

Thank you, Sir, and can you tie in the role for assured access to space in providing vital space-based capabilities for military services in their other, respective domains? 

21:19 – 21:55 

In some respects, that’s one of the reasons why the Space Force was developed. It really was to bring to bear our launch needs, or space needs, if you will, to support all of the services. 

Certainly, requirements that are perhaps are unique for the nautical domain, for the Navy. There are needs, particularly for rapid, tactical needs for ground forces, whether that’s the Army or the Marine Corps and being able to provide those capabilities, if you will, with a broad understanding that we have the capability of meeting everybody’s requirements.

21:56 – 22:06 

And so we’ve talked a little bit about the past and the present of national security launches, but now I’d like to talk about the future. What does the future space launch capability look like? 

22:07 – 23:27 

In that regard, I’m very happy to see the emphasis from the Secretary of the Air Force on developing peer capabilities or abilities to match or exceed the peer competitors out there in looking at it in terms of air, we’re looking at it in terms of organizations. We will be doing the same thing relative to space. 

The Space Force is reorganizing to create a space futures organization to look at what the future needs are from launch to satellite development, to personnel development, to run and operate these kinds of capabilities. 

So it really is looking at the future in every specific aspect and one that we don’t talk a lot about – at least openly – really to look at how we could do different partnerships to get that rapid capability in partnering with NASA and other organizations to take maximum advantage and leverage our, in some respects, common requirements when it comes to space launch capability or satellite development capabilities and to make sure that we take advantage of everything that’s out there and work with partners in different respects, so we can do things differently, do things quicker, do things more efficiently in space.  

23:28 – 23:49 

And Sir, Elara Nova is presenting itself as a bridge between the Space Force and its commercial space partners. So based on Elara Nova’s roster of consultants and their military and commercial backgrounds, in what ways does Elara Nova support and ensure the Space Force and its commercial partners have what they need to maintain that strategic advantage in assured access to space? 

23:50 – 25:03 

Well, I think it’s making sure that we fully utilize the very broad subject matter experts, leadership and willingness to look at new ideas, understand where they are, from the civil sector, even from potentially international partnerships. What capabilities are there in being able to assure the Department of Defense that we understand and could work with them and work with the potential partners, if you will, in bringing these two families together. 

I love the word ‘bridge’ that you used, and I think that’s really the right terminology that we literally take advantage of the backgrounds and their willingness to look at new things, their willingness to understand new things, their willingness to provide ideas and innovation for new things, so that we can help the Department of Defense and the National Security Space Launch community to bring those new things to bear to accomplish, again, going back to the very first term, you used early on Scott, ‘Assured access to space,’ and probably the other term you need to develop is assured rapid access to space.

25:04 – 26:00 

This has been the third installment of a Special Edition Series of “The Elara Edge: Expert Insights on Space Security,” featuring guest appearance from Elara Nova’s senior principal advisors. This series comes as the space industry’s emerging and leading consultancy celebrates its first anniversary of elevating military and industry partnerships to meet national security space imperatives. 

As a global consultancy and professional services firm focused on helping businesses and government agencies maximize the strategic advantages of the space domain, Elara Nova is your source for expertise and guidance in space security. 

If you liked what you heard today, please subscribe to our channel and leave us a rating. Music for this podcast was created by Patrick Watkins of PW Audio. This episode was edited and produced by Regia Multimedia Services. I’m your host, Scott King, and join us next time at the Elara Edge.