The cancellation of NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program, featuring the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets, coupled with a decline in U.S. military space spending, has created some anxiety over the future of the national security space industrial base, particularly in propulsion.
Gil Klinger, who oversees space programs in the U.S. Defense Department’s acquisition shop, acknowledges that the industrial base is coming under pressure, but notes that the Pentagon is in the midst of recapitalizing its major satellite fleets and that evolutionary upgrades to these systems can help keep research and development work going.
He said the Defense Department in the coming months will be studying the industrial-base issue as well as questions such as how best to meet the U.S. military’s ever-growing need for satellite communications in a constrained budgetary environment and how best to ensure the nation’s access to space.
Klinger spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster in an interview that was broadcast live on the Internet. Excerpts of the interview are published here.
What are the industrial-base implications of canceling NASA’s Constellation program?
Unfortunately, even before the decisions made by NASA and U.S. President Barack Obama and the administration, our launch industry was under a fair degree of stress, fundamentally because of what I’d describe as an oversupply, on a global basis, in the launch market. There’s no question that with the termination of shuttle operations, and the cancellation of Constellation, there’s going to have to be a fairly significant adjustment both in the solid rocket motor production area as well as in liquid propulsion. We do have the EELV [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] production ongoing, which will help stabilize the industrial base, as well as a number of new entrants — most notably SpaceX, which is developing two new liquid-fired engines. But there’s no question there’s going to be more pressure on an industrial base that was already feeling some degree of heat.
Was your office, to your knowledge, consulted by NASA and the White House on this decision?
We were aware of the ongoing activities, and I’m sure at a more senior level there were discussions that took place in the fall. My office was not specifically involved in those deliberations. There was nothing being hidden here and we were aware of the ongoing discussions. Much of that activity really was focused on the NASA way forward. And as you know, inasmuch as our launch vehicles are based on the EELV program, there was some degree of separation in terms of the direct impact those deliberations would have on our launch activities.
What can the
government do to mitigate the industrial-base impact of Constellation’s cancellation?
There is no question that we, NASA, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the other elements of the executive office of the president recognize that the cornerstone of a healthy launch capability is our propulsion systems. And the good news is that NASA has, as I understand it, a significant amount of money in the president’s budget that has gone to the Hill for a propulsion program. We have a number of cooperative programs between the Defense Department and NASA already. We also need to take stock of where we are going in light of the changes that NASA is undergoing. So I think what we need to do is maintain a continuity in policy and clarity in programs, both on the national security side and the civil side, continue to support our commercial market as much as we can, and continue the research and development under government auspices in those places where there isn’t a commercial incentive to do so or where the commercial market would have a harder time sustaining those capabilities.
What can the government do to keep the overall national security space industrial base warm in the absence of any major program starts?
There are two things I’d note here. The first is we’ve got an ongoing, fairly substantial recapitalization on the national security side of much of the space infrastructure — if you look at GPS 3, if you look at the ongoing production of EELV, the ongoing production of Wideband Global Satcom, Advanced EHF, a series of National Reconnaissance Office programs. So the good news is that while there are fewer programs, certainly in terms of numbers as compared with earlier in the history of our space programs, we have a quite substantial investment going on and will be going on on an enduring basis. Hand in glove with that, what we need to do is maintain the stability of those programs and at the same time identify the places where we can make prudent investments in new capabilities.
The current basis of the nation’s assured access to space is having two separate EELV rockets. Do you lose that as you start moving in the direction of more commonality between the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets?
There is nothing in our experience that raises the confidence of our launch capability like launching. The higher our launch rates — the more we can launch a given type of vehicle — our experience has shown not only the inherent reliability of the vehicle from an engineering standpoint [goes up] but there’s a significant human element here. So the more we can have people in the business of preparing the launch vehicles, integrating the spacecraft and launch vehicles, the more we can have them doing their business, the more confident we are and the higher the reliability that we have.
If we were to continue our definition of assured access as maintaining two vehicles, where is the point where commonality — which gives us benefits in terms of scale in production, in cost reduction and cost avoidance — runs into the possibility that going far enough, you basically have created a potential vulnerability in terms of having the same component on two ostensibly different vehicles?
That’s one of the issues we’re working through right now. The backdrop to all this, aside from the engineering analysis, is also the affordability question. Like so many other areas, if you look at this from a purely engineering perspective you might be tempted to go in one direction but when you overlay the reality of affordability and budget constraints, we’re going to do the most we can in the most affordable manner we have available to us.
Is there a long-term strategy in place for meeting the military’s growing need for satellite telecommunications in the wake of the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications system cancellation?
We need to take stock at the architectural level of what is our future path in the wake of the cancellation of T-Sat. But that’s really only one factor. We also need to take stock as the commercial market continues to provide very robust capabilities for satellite communications, and that’s both within the United States and amongst our allies. We and a lot of our allies share a lot of the same sorts of requirements — we find ourselves shoulder to shoulder with many of our allies in a number of coalition operations on an ongoing basis, so there are probably opportunities there as well. I think within the Defense Department what we are going to be doing in the coming year is trying to take a step back and ask ourselves which are the elements of satellite communications that we believe need to continue to be U.S. owned and operated as opposed to hosted payloads on other systems or provisioned by the allies or the U.S. commercial sector.
What are the big challenges for the Defense Department in doing more hosted payloads?
Hosted payloads are an opportunity for sure, but there’s no free lunch here, either for the host or the hosted payload. For starters, my experience in the space business is that satellite builders, whether they’re government or commercial, really like having control over all the elements of the things that are going to affect that spacecraft and the payloads. We have experience with hosted payloads, but it requires a different way of thinking, both by the host as well as by the government. A commercial provider is going to have a hard schedule and has demands on them in terms of producing a spacecraft for a series of consumers on a certain date with the spacecraft to be placed — for example, if it’s a communications satellite — in geosynchronous orbit at a certain location. From a Department of Defense standpoint, we have to see if that commercial offer is going to be orbiting in a location and on a time scale that is compatible with our requirements. Do they have the power, weight and space aboard the spacecraft and are they on a production schedule where we can match up the payload? There are the obvious, in many cases, security issues associated with protecting not just the technology but the integration and payload onboard the spacecraft. None of these is a showstopper on a blanket basis; it’s just this level of complexity that again, we have to think differently about how we approach doing this.
The vast majority of commercial satellites are launched by non-U.S. rockets, roughly half of which are Russian. What kind of challenge does that present?
I think the question you’re raising is one of the reasons why President Obama has directed a large scale, ongoing review of the national space policy. I think that’s one of the list of key issues that the policy review is going to be taking a look at, namely exactly what you characterized, which is do we have to think differently about how we get U.S. government payloads into orbit. I suspect for some there will be a discussion about what constitutes a U.S. government payload. Honestly, I don’t foresee in the near future a time where a U.S. government-owned and -operated imagery payload would be launched on anything but a U.S. launch vehicle. But that’s sort of an extreme case.