The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Atlas 5 launch
The Air Force is grappling with the question of whether it can afford two launch vehicles, like the Atlas 5 (above); another question is whether the US can afford not to have assured space access. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

US space launch policy: security versus expense

Back in the mid-1990s, Air Force General Thomas C. Moorman was given the job of deciding how to secure America’s access to space for both military and civilian purposes. His solution, embodied in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, was to have two separate rockets that would share virtually no common systems and be built on separate production lines. This would ensure that the US would have at all times an operational family of launch vehicles available.

The roots of this decision go back to the 1986 post-Challenger period when the US found itself not only with the space shuttle grounded, but also with the difficult and expensive job of getting the Titan 34B to work properly. The spectacular explosion of one of these, in April 1986, just a few months after the Challenger disaster, convinced many that the US space transportation system was broken and needed to be fixed. A subsequent Titan 4A catastrophe, in 1993, seems to have been the last straw for the Air Force.

Having assured access to space, with the Atlas 5 and Delta 4, seems like a reasonable policy, especially given America’s dependence on space systems for its warfighting networked systems to work properly. It is, however, a very expensive one. The excess costs are debatable. It is certainly a lot more than the $50 million that has been mentioned. Given that the total defense budget is now approaching half a trillion dollars, one would think that, even if the excess costs were as much as $100 million, this could be absorbed but, we are at war, and budgets are always tight.

In the mid ’90s it was assumed that the demand for space launch services would be constantly increasing due to the communication requirements of the digital age. As we now know, these requirements were considerably overstated and a fiber-optic cable system could be put in place faster, and at less cost, than communication satellites. Since then, the commercial space launch market has stagnated and no one can predict when, or if, it will pick up again. There is also the missile proliferation factor. Nations all over the world have been designing and building national launch systems and trying to sell cut-rate launch services to help finance what are essentially military programs. This means that it’s a buyer’s market and it is frankly impossible to profitably sell a commercial EELV launch. Boeing, it seems, has given up trying with the Delta 4 and Lockheed Martin is struggling.

The commercial space launch market has stagnated and no one can predict when, or if, it will pick up again.

The US government is going to be buying these rockets for a long time to come. For the military alone, more than 50 launches will have to be bought within the next ten years. NASA and NOAA will also be buying some of these vehicles for their own needs. The question is not really, “Should we keep both production lines open in the short run?” but, “What should be the policy ten or fifteen years from now when NASA’s Crew Exploration Vehicle is operational and the shuttle is retired?” Does the US government really want to be faced with a situation in which the US is denied access to space for years on end while contractors spend tens, or hundreds, of millions trying to fix a broken launch system? The time and effort it took to recover from the disasters of the late 1980s should be a warning.

At some point, probably in about twenty years time, the EELVs will have to be replaced as the primary military launch systems. What kind of a replacement, how much will it cost and how responsive will it be are all still open questions. The nature of the requirements will be set by the size and mission of the Pentagon’s future spacecraft. Will these be the small and relatively low cost satellites, such as those that were originally promised for the Future Imagery Architecture program? Swarms of small surveillance satellites could, in the future, provide for the persistence that both the theater commanders and the national intelligence community say they want, but they could be less than adequate if they end up costing more than estimated and if their performance is not as good as what the intelligence community gets from the current generation of spacecraft.

One alternative would be large scale gossamer structures in medium Earth orbit (MEO) or in geosynchronous orbit (GEO). Very large lightweight apertures, such as those described by Ivan Bekey, in his book Advanced Space System Concepts, could be chosen as being both persistent and being above the altitude that would make them vulnerable to primitive anti satellite weapons.

Does the US government really want to be faced with a situation in which the US is denied access to space for years on end while contractors spend tens, or hundreds, of millions trying to fix a broken launch system?

Similar considerations apply to communications, eavesdropping, navigation and weather satellites. Deciding what the shape and nature of America’s military space fleet will be over the next thirty years, is more of an art than a science. General Moorman, now retired and working for the consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, has been asked to “relook at the launch business.” This is going to be an exceptionally difficult study to get right. Estimating launch rates ten years from now is moderately hard; trying to prophesize what things will be like twenty years or more from now is exceptionally hard.

Some civilian factors include: Will there be a renaissance of communications satellites due to developments in laser communications technology? Will there be a stronger demand for commercial remote sensing satellites? Will there be regular tourist flights to orbit? Military factors that Moorman and his team will have to examine are: Will the US place anti-missile defense systems in orbit? What will be the requirements for offensive and defensive counterspace systems? There will also be other questions related to the so-called weaponization of space.

General Moorman’s report is due in December. Like the Rumsfeld Commission report four years ago, it will probably be the basis for a discussion of future military space policy, no matter who wins. Four years ago, the Rumsfeld Commission alerted the incoming administration to some serious problems with the internal organization of the US military space effort. One hopes that this new report will make it clear that a difficult set of decisions will have to be made over the next four years. These choices will not only determine the size of US space forces over the next thirty or more years, but could decide whether or not the US remains the number one military power on this planet.