For a Truly National Launch Policy

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The United States is getting ready to launch another national space launch policy. Yet, the question is, do we have a truly national launch policy, supported by an executable strategy, or one that allows separate and independent actions by NASA and the national security space enterprise?

In the past, the Department of Defense (DoD) and NASA have, for the most part, each gone their own way with respect to space launch. This has happened for several reasons: different mission requirements; different objectives; adequate independent budgets and independent control over their space launch design, development and operational systems; and most importantly, cost drivers on each other’s launch systems. If the engines have to be man rated, that could raise production costs for DoD. Similarly, the Air Force has mission assurance activities that include significant oversight, systemic independent reviews and periodic stand-down days that add costs into the overhead that therefore increase the overall costs for the  launch systems that NASA might not want to bear. Even with these cost drivers, NASA and national security space could work with the contractors to separate these costs and work at the component subsystem level to minimize these effects. Whatever these impacts are, however, a strategy that maximizes the buying power of the United States as a single entity would cause the overall cost of launch to be far less to the nation as a whole.

I think there is no question that today space is critical to the nation, first and foremost in defense. But it is also critical to empower the next generation of Americans to lead in a high-tech world. To continue to be the world leader in space, the United States must be first-class in launch. To do so in times of dwindling funds will require us to reach across the aisle between national security space and NASA, and this must be done now.

Over time, both DoD and NASA have collaborated on several systems, with some success. Despite these successes, the launch approaches for both have largely stayed independent.

One example of a very successful DoD/NASA collaboration was the joint use of the Delta 2 launch system for small-medium payloads. Deployment and sustainment of the GPS constellation provided DoD anchor tenancy to the Delta 2 program. Concurrently, NASA committed most of its science and technology missions to Delta 2 as well. Together, the combined rate of national security space and NASA payloads provided substantial industrial base stability and low-cost launch support to this small-medium launch market. When the next-generation GPS satellites moved to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) system, the missions available to the Delta 2 dropped to just a few per year. The low rate increased the price and essentially eliminated Delta 2 from the market. While Delta 2 could re-emerge with a significant increase in satellites in this weight class, there is no such projection.

To date, having separate DoD and NASA strategies has not been a big deal because while it was somewhat inefficient from a national spending point of view, both organizations had enough money to afford going primarily their own way on launch with occasional synergy. In addition to Delta 2, there were other times when, of necessity, NASA used DoD-developed launchers; for example, John Glenn went to orbit on an Air Force-developed Atlas launch system in 1962, but only when the NASA-developed launcher was not completed in time. But on the main, the Air Force did not want to add man rating requirements to its boosters that would drive up launch costs and NASA did not want to lose control of its proven man rating management approaches.

However, today we are at a point in our nation where costs and scarce taxpayer dollars are under great pressure from a struggling economy. The single biggest driver in launch costs is the number of launches because of the high fixed costs of production and launch infrastructure. Keeping a steady production tempo also significantly reduces the risk associated with launch. As we recently observed with several foreign launch failures (two Russian and one Chinese), launch is a fragile business, and mission success must be a key focus in any path forward. Production gaps have caused numerous unplanned hardware issues and increased launch costs and risks. In today’s climate of austere government budgets, we no longer have the luxury of sustaining two autonomous national space launch strategies.

Historically, the manned flight rating of boosters has been the basic bone of contention, and a potential cost driver for the Air Force that it would just as soon avoid. But economics are driving where we all go nowadays, and there has to be some level of commonality in order to create synergy and minimize overall cost to the U.S. government. Synergies don’t have to be at the system level but can be attained with common use of major components or suppliers such as engines and avionics. That would allow both NASA and the national security space enterprise to pursue separate strategies while maintaining a solid industrial/vendor basis with common components.

NASA has retired the space shuttle without having a viable replacement ready to go. This has caused dramatic negative impacts on the industrial base — especially the rocket propulsion sector. In fact, NASA’s use of the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) provided much of the industrial base stability for rocket propulsion through continuous technology insertions, development improvements and production and flight support that have benefited both NASA and the DoD for many years. Today, NASA’s Constellation program and Ares launch vehicles have been canceled. The heavy-lift variant of the Ares 5 had planned to use a cluster of RS-68 engines (the core engine for Delta 4) for the liquid booster. Unfortunately, cancelling the space shuttle program without Ares/Constellation systems at least in development creates substantial industrial base uncertainty that directly impacts the cost of EELV systems.

For a healthy liquid rocket engine industrial base, there are two components that need to be maintained:

  • Production capability, including manufacturing, assembly, test and launch support to ensure 100 percent mission success.
  • Development capability, including design and development engineers serving as bench strength for mission assurance, anomaly resolution and production support.

A mix of sustained production and development establishes a healthy industrial base for the future. Development could come in the form of incremental product improvements or full-scale development of new systems.

So how could a truly national launch strategy, involving both NASA and national security space, help?

If the two could move toward joint use of common boosters and/or common components and common engines, this would lead to more efficient use of existing capacity. They could still have the flexibility of supporting differing space launch architectures through the selective use of modular stages and/or clustered engines. This would allow the Air Force to operate in the intermediate-heavy payload class and NASA to operate in both the lower boost class for scientific missions and the super-heavy class for missions beyond low Earth orbit while maximizing the launch rate over common supporting infrastructure. It also would give the industrial base a reasonable annual production rate in order to avoid gaps, dark lines, subtier supplier shutdowns, and obsolescence or shelf-life issues. Perturbations in any part of the user requirement then would have a smaller impact on the overall enterprise.

An example of synergistic benefit could be the use of the RS-68 for the Delta 4 and a new NASA heavy-lift launch vehicle. Even a joint collaboration for a new U.S. kerosene-fueled booster engine in the RD-180 thrust class could be jointly used by both parties, as a replacement engine for the Atlas 5 launch vehicle and as a liquid rocket booster strap-on to replace expensive solid-rocket boosters that are envisioned for the next-generation NASA heavy-lift vehicle.

As a nation, we also need to look at the solid-rocket industry, which is under as much or more stress than the liquid propulsion industry. In particular, solid-rocket motor usage is very attractive for rapid response missile systems and is used on variants of the Atlas 5, Delta 4, Minuteman and Trident D5 systems. These solid-rocket motors are small monolithic stages and/or strap-ons, as opposed to large, expensive, segmented solid-rocket boosters. We need to answer questions such as: Does the nation need large, segmented solid-rocket boosters (as used in the Titan and space shuttle programs)? Are there efficiencies if we focus on small solid-rocket motors? Can we find a way to keep the current solid-rocket motor industrial base healthy? It seems any solution to this problem will be far better and more cost effective if it is a collaborative solution.

I certainly applaud the president’s National Space Policy for addressing the commercial launch business. An integrated strategy between NASA and the national security space enterprise could also be a positive if done correctly. NASA has aggressively supported the new commercial entries, and having a joint view of what and how to do this between NASA and the Air Force would be useful in these new and developing launch capabilities in the future as these suppliers mature their products while building a record of success on more risk tolerant missions.

Another area where cooperation would be good is in the potential for hosted payloads. Certainly we should be able to launch payloads that have been developed to operate on U.S.-built buses to be able to go to space on foreign launchers. This would allow hosted payloads to be another arrow in the quiver of NASA and national security space planning, and would be a beneficial business model for space launch and the associated industrial base.

We have budget pressures unlike any we have had in a long time. The time is now to start thinking of launch cost efficiencies at the national level.

The U.S. government must develop a truly national launch strategy where national security space and NASA collaborate on an overall approach to space launch that maximizes the total buying power of the U.S., reducing the cost of reliable launch. This would improve the probability of launch success, support the critical existing space launch industrial base, improve the health of the space launch vendor base, allow cost-effective quantities to be purchased and keep the U.S. on the leading edge in space transportation.

 

Thomas D. Taverney has been involved in space operations and space systems development for over 42 years, as an active duty and reserve officer and within the commercial space industry. He is a former vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command. He wrote this essay in his personal capacity.