Time for a space access organization?
by Taylor Dinerman
|The X-33, in particular, was the sort of traumatic shock that sent a number of good engineers and idealistic politicians of both parties, as well as NASA and corporate bureaucrats, into their shelters.|
Bringing all these organizations and people together with the goal of, say, making expendable launch vehicles “impotent and obsolete” is not going to happen soon. The administration’s new space transportation policy has not yet been fully digested by government and industry. The EELV program is still pretty expensive, and the military’s reputation for cost-effective space systems acquisition is in tatters. Fixing these problems, and making sure that the reforms are actually implemented, will be atop the DoD’s space priorities, at least in the near future.
For the moment, the government is putting its major RLV efforts on the back burner. After so many failures this is understandable. The X-33, in particular, was the sort of traumatic shock that sent a number of good engineers and idealistic politicians of both parties, as well as NASA and corporate bureaucrats, into their shelters. While it was obviously more than a bit overambitious, it could have been a gold mine of new technologies and developments. It’s too bad that no one, outside of a brave band of California students, is pursuing aerospike engine development. The lightweight graphite epoxy and aluminum fuel tanks, which were designed after the original tank failure, showed some promise but, since the shutdown of the Next Generation Launch Vehicle program, these efforts, too, have been canceled.
A “Space Access Organization” would, at least, be able to gather all the hard-won data from these canceled programs and maintain a central depository of information and expert knowledge. Sometimes, it seems that launching rockets is as much an art as a science, and all too often the “art” of rocketry is lost, even if the hard data is preserved. Our national bad habit of starting and stopping highly challenging technology projects is becoming just too wasteful, even for a rich nation such as the US.
|It will take a monumental effort to gather and assess what RLV information is available, and without a previously established knowledge base, it will be easy for the decision makers of the future to slip back into the wishful thinking that produced the X-33.|
Meanwhile, of a number of small companies, the so-called entrepreneurial sector—which not only includes the Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic venture, but also SpaceX and Kistler Aerospace (which seems to be emerging from bankruptcy) as well as smaller outfits like SpaceDev, TGV Rockets, and XCOR Aerospace—some are getting small sums of government money and others are making do with angel financing or whatever they can raise in the capital markets. If they do produce a suitable RLV before 2015, or thereabouts, the US government should be happy to buy its services. Even if they do not, the government should have some easy way to allow them to sell their expertise to the Air Force and NASA.
Indications are that some time towards the end of this decade, the military will, once again, become interested in RLVs and will be ready to invest a relatively small sum in one or two technology demonstration projects. If things remain as they are, the information needed for DoD’s leaders to make an informed decision will be scattered all over the institution. It will take a monumental effort to gather and assess what is available, and without a previously established knowledge base, it will be easy for the decision makers of the future to slip back into the wishful thinking that produced the X-33.
A Space Access Organization which has, as its principal goal, supporting a future RLV project, would be a small investment but one that would pay for itself, not only by making the long-term project a success but, more importantly, by helping a future Secretary of Defense avoid wasting money on great sounding but unrealistic programs.