Spacelift 2025
The Supporting Pillar for Space Superiority

2025 Logo

A Research Paper

Presented To

Air Force 2025


Lt Col Henry D. Baird
Maj Steven D. Acenbrak

Maj William J. Harding
LCDR Mark J. Hellstern

Maj Bruce M. Juselis

August 1996


2025 is a study designed to comply with a directive from the chief of staff of the Air Force to examine the concepts, capabilities, and technologies the United States will require to remain the dominant air and space force in the future. Presented on 17 June 1996, this report was produced in the Department of Defense school environment of academic freedom and in the interest of advancing concepts related to national defense. The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the United States government.

This report contains fictional representations of future situations/scenarios. Any similarities to real people or events, other than those specifically cited, are unintentional and are for purposes of illustration only.

This publication has been reviewed by security and policy review authorities, is unclassified, and is cleared for public release.






    Executive Summary

  1. Introduction
  2. Required Capabilities
  3. National Spacelift System Capabilities
  4. Concept of Operations
  5. Recommendations

    Appendix A - Propulsion Advances





2-1. Mass Fraction Reduction Baseline

2-2. Reusable MTV Maintenance Requirements

2-3. Commercial Launch Potential

2-4. Impact of Flight Rate on per Flight Cost of an MTV

3-1. Conceptualized operations for the MTV

3-2. Artist's Rendering of 1st Generation Spacelift Wing

5-1. Launch Costs

A-1. A Basic Nuclear Thermal Rocket



1 - MTV Systems Attributes

2 - OTV Systems Attributes

3 - Qualitative System Comparison

Executive Summary

The US spacelift system in 2025 focuses on routine operations. The research and development (R&D) mentality of past spacelift programs is replaced by the aircraft-like operations of a fully reusable spacelift system, operated by both commercial industry and a US spacelift wing. Though developed primarily as a practical and affordable alternative for orbital access, the multipurpose transatmospheric vehicle (MTV) is expanded into force-enhancing missions like intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), global mobility, and strike. MTV becomes the strategic strike platform of 2025. It can be flown manned or unmanned, depending on mission requirements, but it is primarily used in the unmanned mode. With the capability to accomplish the earth-to-orbit (ETO) mission as well as these other earth-to-earth (ETE) missions efficiently, the MTV is a flexible platform which strengthens all air-and space-core competencies. MTV is complemented by the orbital transfer vehicle (OTV) for space orbital missions. After MTVs park satellites in low orbits, OTVs provide the additional thrust needed to push the payloads into higher energy orbits. OTVs also facilitate the maintenance of satellites in orbit by retrieving existing platforms for repair, refueling, or rearming. Finally, OTVs give the spacelift system a rapid orbital sortie capability for deterrence, space control, reconnaissance, counterspace, and force application.

This paper recommends Air Force support for NASA's X-33 transatmospheric reusability demonstration and investment in a follow-on military MTV and an initial OTV using today's technologies. Once routine operations are institutionalized with these first generation reusable systems, propulsion and material technology should be infused to provide a more capable system. This paper recommends avid support of R&D funding needed to provide these technological advances. The technology push should not end with the initial incorporation of advanced propulsion and lightweight materials into second generation systems, as third generation revolutionary concepts like fusion and antimatter promise even greater capability. Finally, the paper recommends development of innovative missions for the 2025 spacelift system which enable it to strengthen all air-and space-core competencies. The incremental approach outlined in this paper provides the best opportunity to field an operable system which supports all customers.

Chapter 1

Space started in an R&D mode; it has difficulty moving to an operational mode.

- Gen Ronald Fogelman, CSAF

Spacelift is the key supporting pillar of the space superiority core competency. Without the support of spacelift, other platforms do not make it into orbit to execute space superiority operations. Space superiority, along with global mobility, information dominance, air superiority, and precision employment, are the US air-and space-core competencies.1 Since losing spacelift capability would have a devastating effect on US ability to achieve space superiority, spacelift is the strategic center of gravity for all space operations. Moreover, spacelift in the year 2025 is more than just a critical supporting pillar for space superiority, because affordable, reusable spacelift also is an effective force enhancer for the other air-and space-core competencies.

The focal concept of spacelift in the year 2025 is routine operations to, through, and in space. The 1994 Space Launch Modernization Plan advocates a shift away from a "launch" mentality to an "operations" mentality.2 This operations mentality is vital to building a 21st century space architecture, which the Air Force's New World Vistas study envisions as a survivable, on-demand, real-time, global presence that is affordable.3 Without affordable access to space, the rest of the space missions are difficult to accomplish. There simply is not enough funding available to develop innovative space-based capabilities while continuing to employ brute force methods of getting to orbit. Routine operations are more affordable, because they eliminate the large standing armies required by the research and development (R&D) processing philosophy of current expendable systems. Affordability can be improved further through the infusion of revolutionary, evolutionary, and commercial advances in technology, particularly propulsion and materials. These advances lead to reusable, single stage to orbit (SSTO) spacelift vehicles, capable of satisfying all spacelift requirements. These vehicles allow aircraft-like routine operations to occur in spacelift.

In the year 2025, spacelift is the conduit to the "high ground" of civil, defense, and commercial space operations. To maximize the operational advantages of space, the US has established a composite spacelift wing composed of vertically launched, SSTO, fully reusable, and maintainable multipurpose transatmospheric vehicles (MTV). These MTVs responsively deliver light-to-medium payloads into and through low earth orbit (LEO). In addition, the Department of Defense (DOD) maintains a squadron of orbital transfer vehicles (OTV), attached to the international space station infrastructure. These are employed to move satellites between orbits, thus minimizing initial lift requirements for the MTVs. OTVs also add life to satellites by refueling, rearming, and resupplying them, as well as protecting the US space architecture. This MTV/OTV combination provides any theater with rapid response, all-weather surveillance and sortie capabilities in less than an hour.

Heavy lift is a joint government and private commercial venture for scientific and commercial purposes with military mission augmentation capabilities. To expand scientific knowledge and economic opportunity, NASA, DOD, and industry pursue intersolar system exploration as a joint international venture. DOD is the space traffic control manager. They also lead the international planetary defense system (IPDS) and operate a directorate on board the space station. In the commercial sector, spacelift ventures are based on average launches per day and safety records comparable to the airline industry of the 1990s.

Using a flattened organization with technician-level maintenance, spacelift operations are routine. Space launch corporations have transformed several closed Air Force bases into space ports. The remoteness of these bases provide added safety buffer zones. Advances in computer diagnostics provide real-time, on-the-pad systems checks with self-repair and automated rerouting of vital space vehicle functions. Seeking to protect and modernize their space architecture, some nations and multinational corporations pursue the space debris environmental cleanup, which is a multimillion dollar business. Space-based antisatellite weapons, antiballistic missile weapons, and precision guided munitions (PGM), including lasers, particle beams, kinetic weapons, and nonlethal weapons, are the DOD's primary arsenal for space control and force application deployed from standardized modular packages. MTVs contribute to global mobility by inserting small, highly equipped, armed teams of the US Space Special Operations Forces or critical cargo anywhere on the globe through LEO. Air Force global reach is felt anywhere in the world in less than an hour4 Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and capable MTVs provide almost immediate situation awareness of any trouble spot, and strike-configured MTVs add force application capability. The US Spacelift Wing is the primary deterrent force of 2025.

The above spacelift concept in the year 2025 is derived using the horizon mission methodology, which channels creative thinking by envisioning missions and desired architecture in the future then projects them backward toward the present to provide the evolutionary and revolutionary progress needed to achieve that future.5 Using this methodology, the key attributes of the 2025 spacelift system are routine operations with reusability, high-thrust/energy propulsion, modular mission packaging, lower mass fraction (a combination of structure materials and fuel), streamlined infrastructure, and operational simplicity. The combination of these attributes provide affordability. This paper addresses these solution characteristics, describes the spacelift system, details the concept of operations, and gives recommendations that expand the options presented in the Space Launch Modernization Plan, SPACECAST 2020, and New World Vistas. In the year 2025, routine spacelift operations into, through, and in space will strengthen air-and space-core competencies.

Contents | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | A | Bibliography

Contact: Air Force 2025
Last updated: 11 December 1996

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