Editorial: U.S. Needs Propulsion Strategy

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U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel NASA’s Ares 1 and Ares 5 rocket development programs will have repercussions for the U.S. propulsion industrial base that likely will be felt most prominently by the Defense Department, initially in the form of higher prices for satellite launchers and strategic-class missiles. In the absence of mitigating industrial policy measures, the move could over the long haul compromise national skill sets in both solid- and liquid-fueled propulsion systems.

The Obama administration, as it works to put its stamp on national space policy, must map out concrete steps to ensure that crucial U.S. space and defense-related propulsion capabilities are not lost or degraded to the point that bringing them back costs exorbitant sums of money. This will require investments over the next several years that, properly channeled, could not only preserve U.S. expertise in propulsion but also yield improved space-launch capabilities.

The Ares 1 and heavy-lift Ares 5 were to feature a derivative of the giant solid-rocket motors used today on NASA’s soon-to-be-mothballed space shuttles, as well as a Saturn 5-heritage liquid-hydrogen engine dubbed the J-2X. These propulsion systems were to be developed, respectively, by AlliantTechsystems (ATK), the dominant U.S. solid-rocket motor supplier, and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which holds a similar position in liquid-fueled engines.

Liquid-fueled engines are used primarily on space launchers; solids are used on space rockets and military missiles, both tactical and strategic. The demise of Ares leaves the United States without a major development program in either area.

The only large liquid-fueled main engine produced in the United States today is Pratt & Whitney’s RS-68, which powers the Delta 4 launcher. Pratt & Whitney also builds the RL10 upper-stage engine, different versions of which are used on the Delta 4 and Atlas 5, vehicles that launch the vast majority of operational payloads for the U.S. military and scientific satellites for NASA. Without a large production or development program to spread out its overhead costs, Pratt & Whitney, which also is losing the Space Shuttle Main Engine program, likely will have to dramatically downsize — shedding expertise that will be difficult to get back — charge more for its products, or most likely, both.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is not developing any new strategic-class missiles and has no such program on the horizon. With deployment of interceptors for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense missile shield winding down, the D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile is the only steady production program in large-diameter solid rocket motors.

The space shuttle program has long accounted for the bulk of solid-rocket motor industry revenue, but this program is at its end. ATK and the other U.S. solid-rocket maker, Aerojet, still have work in tactical-class missiles — Aerojet builds the first two stages of the Standard Missile 3 interceptor, for example — but ATK has huge manufacturing facilities that stand to be idled in the coming years. Such facilities are notoriously hard to convert to other uses because of the environmental cleanup costs involved, meaning ATK faces the prospect of maintaining a lot of unproductive real estate, costs that also likely would be passed on to the government via active programs.

The U.S. propulsion industry has undergone dramatic consolidation over the last decade as programs have dwindled following the end of the Cold War. Today there are just the two primary providers of large liquid- and solid-fueled propulsion systems — Pratt & Whitney and ATK, respectively — and Aerojet, which does a little of both. Further consolidation would bring the United States to single-supplier status in one or both propulsion areas.

Then there’s the question of what happens when the nation decides it actually needs a new liquid-fueled engine or strategic solid-rocket motor — as it will — several years down the road; not only would a new work force have to be hired and trained, but factories would have to be retooled and requalified, a process that would take years and cost hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions of dollars.

Avoiding that kind of scenario will require a comprehensive strategy — with an appropriate funding commitment — that addresses current and anticipated future propulsion needs of NASA and the Department of Defense. Industry officials have advocated a program to develop a 1 million pound-thrust kerosene-fueled main engine that would power the nation’s future workhorse launchers, be they derivatives of the Atlas 5, Delta 4 or something else. This would preserve expertise and infrastructure and eventually yield a high-performing engine that could end U.S. reliance on Russia, which supplies the main engine for today’s Atlas 5.

On the solid side, one option is to fund low-rate production and periodic developmental testing of a motor that serves as the core stage of both a small satellite launcher and a future strategic-class missile. The larger vehicles in the U.S. Air Force’s Minotaur family of small satellite launchers utilize Peacekeeper missile stages, but supplies of these motors are limited to a few years’ worth.

Unfortunately, it will be far more expensive — perhaps prohibitively so — to maintain the ability to manufacture shuttle-class solid-rocket motors for a heavy-lift rocket that would be needed for astronaut missions to deep space. The Ares 5 was going to be costly to begin with; the price tag for something similar will soar far higher once the shuttle motor production line shuts down, as appears all but inevitable.

Technological breakthroughs might some day change the propulsion equation, but hope isn’t something the nation can bank on. The Obama administration seems to have settled for hope when it comes to getting U.S. astronauts out of low Earth orbit; it needs something more substantive — a realistic and funded strategy — to preserve the nation’s core space and missile propulsion infrastructure.