Even before the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986, the US military wanted access to space independent of the civilian space agency. But that accident spurred the Reagan administration to devise a National Space Launch Strategy that directed the military to develop a “mixed fleet” policy and ensure access to space by way of multiple vehicles.
By 1994, as the military sought to develop a stable of rockets for the 21st century, Air Force vice chief of staff Thomas Moorman urged development of an “evolved expendable launch vehicle,” or EELV approach. The goal of the Moorman plan was to “evolve” the aging Atlas and Delta rockets by improving their reliability and lowering their cost. This grew into the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets presently built and flown by United Launch Alliance.
In the last two decades, this EELV abbreviation has become synonymous for military launches. But that appellation makes less sense now, as the Air Force has begun to buy launches from SpaceX and indicates its willingness to consider sending its payloads into space on previously flown rockets.
And so the Air Force is changing the name of the EELV program. In a news release issued Friday night, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center announced the program name was officially changed to the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program as of last Friday.
Growing commercial capability
“As the NSSL program embarks on a new chapter making launch services more agile and effective for the warfighter, it honors over twenty-five years of EELV history,” said Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of Air Force’s Launch Enterprise Directorate, in the news release.
In the last 25 years, the Air Force says it has launched 75 national security missions, worth more than $50 billion. The Air Force release says that while it honors this heritage, the military has recognized the success of the U.S. commercial launch industry of late, noting that it has, “grown significantly during the past five to seven years.” Nearly all of that US growth has come from SpaceX.
The announcement comes as Blue Origin also seeks to provide reusable launch services to the military, in addition to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. In October, the Air Force said it would provide $500 million to Blue Origin to help complete development of the New Glenn rocket, which has a reusable first stage and the capacity to deliver 13 tons to geostationary space.
There seems to be just one potential problem with the new name. There is already a federal research facility with the abbreviation NSSL—the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Based in Oklahoma, the NOAA facility studies severe weather such as tornadoes, flash flooding, hail, and lighting to improve the ability of forecasters to predict these storms and better warn the public.