Chapter 5

A hundred years from now people will look back and wonder how we ever managed our affairs on this planet without the tools provided by the space program...a world without spacecraft is as hard to imagine a world without telephones and airplanes.

-Wernher von Braun

Spacelift's center of gravity is ROUTINE OPERATIONS. A paradigm shift in strategic thinking from the specialized R&D space focus to mission accomplishment in national security and national economic growth must be accomplished. The following passages summarize the requirements to develop an operational system based on incremental long-range technological and operational art advances.

As US spacelift transitions into an environment dominated by commercial providers, it is unlikely that the DOD will continue to support its own separate industrial base. At the October 1995 Air Force Association convention in Los Angeles, Secretary Sheila Widnall stated, "It is clear this nation can only afford a defense industrial base in those areas where there is no commercial activity."37

A key aspect to reducing the cost of spacelift is enlisting industry support in the commercial sector for the development of new systems. NASA administrator Dan Goldin is attempting to build such a partnership with the private sector to reusable launch vehicles. After experiencing an order of magnitude reduction in satellite cost per bandwidth over the last decade, NASA is teaming with industry to realize a $10,000 per pound to $1,000 per pound reduction in the cost of launch.38 Looking a generation beyond the $1,000-per-pound barrier, the $200-per-pound mark further enables commercial uses of space into such areas as entertainment and space tourism.39

Given the magnitude of spacelift challenge, no magic solution can resolve all of the issues instantaneously. Instead, the problem must be attacked incrementally. The first step is to address the crippling cost issue. The Space Launch Modernization Plan outlines how the country will change one of the current expendable launch vehicles into a family of vehicles capable of satisfying the myriad of lift requirements facing the country, from medium payloads to heavy payloads. The resulting EELV system requires sustainment of one system infrastructure versus the three systems currently maintained for Titan, Atlas, and Delta. But this "right-sized" infrastructure, combined with more reasonable processing timelines, is only the first step in controlling the cost of launch. Concurrent with the DOD expendable effort, NASA is pursuing a truly reusable spacelift system, the X-33. Capitalizing on the advances of the X-33, the first generation, reusable MTV must provide responsive operations with airline-style operations.

This first generation space MTV's primary focus will be routine operations with an expanding mission base. It will provide aircraft-like operations, improved reliability, technician-level maintenance, and simplified infrastructure. The system will remain cryogenically powered and will demonstrate operable spacelift operations without requiring revolutionary technology.

The next step will expand on the lessons learned with the initial MTV by pushing propulsion and material technologies toward leading edge evolutionary technologies, including combined-cycle engines using laser pulse detonation, magnetohydrodynamics, and higher energy propellants. Combined with advances in reduced vehicle dry weight due to advances in materials and lighter weight fiber-optic avionics, the second generation MTV will see large improvements in performance. Finally, the third generation MTV will incorporate a high-energy propulsion system capable of producing an Isp of greater than 900 seconds. Combined with further structural advances in materials, which decrease the dry weight of the vehicles, and increased sortie rates, this resulting generation of MTVs will possess a lower mass fraction and will provide an order magnitude improvement in cost per pound to orbit.

The key to realizing these leaps in spacelift performance is to protect the seed money for a variety of technologies while the initial steps take place. Propulsion and material technologies drive the development of MTV systems. Early reductions in the cost of launch from EELV and first generation MTVs are gained by directing investment in these key technologies. The DOD must form partnerships with NASA and the commercial sector to provide synergy in achieving this goal. Stovepipe efforts create stovepipe systems which can no longer be afforded. National Space Strategy must be examined and revised every couple of years to ensure the efforts of all sectors are properly orchestrated with the DOD as lead agent to ensure that it is in concert with the National Security Strategy.

Once the ETO problem is mitigated, the funds required to assure access to space can begin to address the problems of assured access through space (ETE) and assured access in space (STS). These ETE frontier spacelift missions enable spacelift as a true force enhancer. The ETE mission is a natural outgrowth of an affordable and efficient, high-energy MTV. Once the system becomes plausible, the military is just one of many customers in line to take advantage of the leap in capability. The military MTV must be developed as the future strategic war fighting vehicle.

STS missions will benefit from some of the same technological advances that facilitated the high-energy reusable vehicle. High-efficiency, low-thrust solar ion propulsion systems will provide inexpensive orbital transfer for those customers able to wait weeks for their satellite to reach programmed orbit. Military customers requiring a quicker route to orbit will use a nuclear ion propulsion system on a similar vehicle bus. To best utilize the expanded spacelift mission area of 2025, the DOD will need to refine the concepts and define the entire spectrum of missions now!

The overriding factor to the spacelift problem is routine operations, which ultimately leads to affordability. Combining solution characteristics described in this paper, affordability become the outgrowth of increased sortie capability and reusability. Given the increasing pressures of lower cost foreign goods (fig. 5-1), the motivation to lower costs is common to all sectors of the US space launch community. Commercial providers cannot regain market share at $10,000 per pound while facing a European trend of $8,000 per pound and Russian and Chinese trends towards $4,000 per pound. While a $1,000 per pound MTV does not capture all of today's market, it does provide the motivation to lower the weight of any cargo to the point where such reduction is physically possible.

Figure 5-1. Launch Costs
Source: Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, Space Launch Modernization Plan, Office of Science and Technology Policy, 1995.

Figure 5-1. Launch Costs

Implementing the incremental approach outlined above provides a safe, realistic path from space launch to spacelift operations. It lowers the cost of the current system while providing a spacelift capability to meet the national defense requirements at any time during the incremental development. The ETO mission remains the cornerstone of spacelift operations. Once cost improvements are realized in the ETO area, expansion into ETE and STS missions becomes a reality.

To reach this 2025 spacelift vision, the initial effort must begin now. First, true reusability must be demonstrated in a first generation MTV. While NASA has the lead in the reusability track, DOD must stay engaged by supporting technology, ensuring the system meets military as well as civil/commercial requirements, and developing operational mission uses for the initial system, including pop-up and refly satellite options. Second, investment in propulsion technology must be pursued aggressively. The total DOD launch technology investment has atrophied at about $45 million per year.40 A portion of investment dollars must be used to pursue such revolutionary propulsion systems as laser pulse detonation, magnetohydrodynamics, the "accelerator class" propulsion concept, high density fuels, and ion propulsion.41 This propulsion development must take advantage of commercially derived advances in composite technology and manufacture (including thermopultrusion), metallurgy, and computers. The propulsion system must be able to power the MTV through all conceived mission profiles. Finally, development of innovative missions for a future MTV/OTV system must be studied relative to air-and space-core competencies. To become a viable foundation for global presence, planning for information dominance, precision employment, and space superiority, must begin now!

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Last updated: 11 December 1996

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