The U.S. Air Force has a busy year ahead of it in space, as it aims to launch the first satellites of several critical constellations, formulate plans to buy new weather and space surveillance satellites, and understand the ramifications of a handful of policy reviews and changes in NASA’s human spaceflight program.
Space acquisition troubles have dogged the Air Force for much of the past decade as it has plodded through efforts to replace its Cold War-era constellations. The service has made some headway in recent years with the successful launches of its first three Wideband Global Satcom communications satellites.
This year the service hopes to continue that progress by launching the first of its new generation of highly protected communications satellites, the first of a new block of GPS satellites, and the first Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite. Early next year is now the target for launching the long-awaited first Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellite.
The White House sent its 2011 budget request to Congress Feb. 1, and with it came several directives that will affect the Air Force in the years ahead. The administration proposed canceling NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program, a decision that will affect the cost and availability of the solid-rocket motors used for space launch and strategic missiles. The White House also terminated a troubled military-civilian weather satellite program, and the Air Force is now planning a replacement program.
The White House is also expected to soon complete a Space Policy Review addressing topics including space protection, cooperation, acquisition reform and export controls. The Pentagon will follow that with its own Space Posture Review, an interim version of which was delivered to Congress in March. And the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review could inform decisions about the nation’s strategic arsenal that may affect how rocket motors are bought and used.
Gary Payton is responsible for overseeing the military’s space acquisition plans and research and development. Payton, a former astronaut, spoke recently with Space News staff writers Turner Brinton and Amy Klamper.
What does the cancellation of Constellation mean for the Air Force?
If there are increases to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) annual launch rate, that’s a good sign. Right now we have a plan for United Launch Alliance to do eight launches a year, notionally five for the Air Force, two for the National Reconnaissance Office and one for NASA. So if we can increase that one for NASA up to two or three per year, that would be great for everybody, because we would be buying more rocket engines per year and flying more rockets per year, and that helps with the proficiency of the launch crews.
If some commercial company or companies want to use the EELV for human access to the space station, we’d have to look very closely at changes to the rockets’ design in order to accommodate people. And any of those changes we’d have to manage very closely so that they don’t ripple in to the Air Force design, which has been very successful with 31 successes out of 31 attempts. My view is, if it works, don’t fix it.
One way to safely use these rockets is to build “white tail” EELVs that are the same for everybody. After you assemble them, then you add different things to allow crew inside the launch vehicle. We’d be building more rockets per year, and the critical parts are the same for all users. What I don’t want to see is two separate assembly lines, one that is unique to NASA and another unique for the Air Force and intelligence community. That doesn’t help anybody because their RS-68 engine is different from our RS-68 engine, and their RL-10 engine is different from our RL-10 engine.
Are you concerned about the Constellation decision’s impact on the solid-rocket motor industrial base?
We’ve come to find out that it has a trivial impact on space launch because we don’t use the big three-and-a-half meter segmented solids on our EELVs; we use solids that are about one-and-a-half meters in diameter. There is a small ripple effect into space launch, but the dominant industrial base concern according to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Industrial Policy is on the ballistic missile side for the Navy and Air Force. We build 30 to 40 stages for the Trident D5 submarine-launched missile every year, and there are about a dozen motors built each year to sustain the Minuteman 3 industrial base. We already know these sustainment costs will go up, but we don’t yet know by how much.
When we understand the ramifications, we’ll have to adjust to it. It may mean buying fewer stages per year. It might mean using these stages for other applications. Right now we pull solid-rocket segments out of storage for use in Minotaur launch vehicles, and that’s been a very successful program for years. We may have to change that.
What is in the interim version of the Space Posture Review, and what was left out?
Well it’s not a finished product. It went around for interagency coordination before it went to Congress, and it had to be signed by the director of national intelligence and the secretary of defense. What it really does is set the environment. It’s a congested and contested environment, and some people add that it’s a competitive environment. We’ve migrated from the Cold War era where there were two dominant space players, and we had a tacit agreement that if you don’t play with our satellites, we won’t play with yours. There are more players nowadays. The interim report says there are 60 nations that have assets in orbit. So the tacit agreement that we shared with the Soviet Union doesn’t apply anymore.
There’s plenty of evidence that shows there are lots of folks who can do signal jamming, lasers and kinetic anti-satellite attacks. And satellite technology is shrinking, so they’re getting harder to keep track of. The interim review sort of lays out that environmental picture, and the final results will come after the White House completes its Space Policy Review. It will not be done in time to inform the 2012 budget request.
Will you include funding to purchase commercial communications capacity in the 2012 budget and beyond?
If you look at the demand curves for communications, no matter where we are the demand curve is going up. We cannot satisfy that demand just with government satellites. So we will be in the business of using commercial capacity for the foreseeable future. Are there better ways to buy and lease it? Sure. The Defense Information Systems Agency and the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration are doing a study to quantify everything that has to go over communications links of all types, whether they are terrestrial, airborne or satellite. To satisfy those demands, we could work on better compression algorithms to have to transmit less data. Or you can pipe data from the aircraft to a gateway on the ground and use fiber to get it where it needs to go. Or you pipe it over the horizon through a government or commercial satellite. That’s all a part of our milsatcom way ahead. I would predict the amount of commercial capacity we buy will continue to increase.
You mentioned airborne communications nodes as a possible solution for the bandwidth crunch. Why do you think this has never really been implemented?
We’ve done some demonstrations of it, and it works as you would expect. But the operations and maintenance costs for keeping something even as inexpensive as an unmanned aerial vehicle continuously on orbit are high. For each orbit I have, I have to have one aircraft in the sky, another flying to the orbit, then another on the ground getting ready to go. So to maintain one orbit, I really have to have two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half aircraft. If you need 24/7 coverage for months or years, cost-wise, that is best served by a satellite. But if it’s a surge and I just need it for a few hours, airplanes are probably a great idea.
You plan to hold an open competition to build the next SBSS satellite. Why would you not sole-source this contract to Boeing and Ball Aerospace, who built the first system?
The next satellite will not be a carbon copy. If you look back, the first satellite was designed as a pathfinder, meant to get something on orbit before the Midcourse Space Experiment stopped functioning. But the program was delayed. It is now sitting in a clean room awaiting launch.
We are developing new requirements for the follow-on satellite. We want to see if perhaps it could have some sort of relationship with the Missile Defense Agency’s planned missile tracking constellation. In essence, there are several different designs we have to look at for the long-term suite of mission requirements. It’s really not about the performance of any particular contractor on the first satellite.
The first SBSS satellite was ready last fall, but difficulties with its Minotaur 4 launcher have kept it on the ground. Have those issues been fully resolved?
I think so. In April we’re going to launch the Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2, which is a cooperative program between the Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Then we should be able to launch the SBSS satellite in June.
What will it take to assure you that a new rocket like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is ready to launch operational military payloads?
We have a set of criteria called the New Entrant Evaluation Plan. One of those requirements is a design review to show margins and the design of the launch vehicle. Both Orbital Sciences and SpaceX will satisfy the new entrant criteria as they progress through NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. I don’t have any problem seeing a future where, for the right size satellites, SpaceX should be a competitor.