23 thoughts on “The Military Space Program

  1. George Turner

    The Navy, or people with Navy backgrounds, would be well suited to long duration crewed missions. For example, I’d suggest that Captain James A Kirk, current commander of the USS Zumwalt would be ideal to command an interplanetary mission – just because.

    The article does spend some time discussing orbital debris management and removal, and along those lines I wonder if private, reusable suborbital vehicles (straight up, straight down) could play a role, perhaps slowing a piece of debris down by intercepting it with a cloud of expanding gas, perhaps violently vented from a LOX tank? If there was some sort of bounty system set up that prioritized targets by threat and mass, even suborbital private space launch might establish a new niche.

    1. Andrew W

      While I like the idea of gas clouds to de-orbit debris, to knock down the debris each suborbital vehicle will need to be fitted with a missile system or large naval gun to fire the cloud to the hundreds of km altitude where the debris hangs out, sadly putting such weapons systems into private hands could be a problem for the anti-gun lobby.

    2. George Turner

      I just built a little spreadsheet where I can put in the weight of the gas and treat it as either a sphere or cylinder of constant density (by translating the deployment horizontally you could probably get the apogee to form a cylinder in the direction of debris travel). Then I input the diameter of density of the debris and assume it collides with a plug of gas that’s either the diameter of the sphere or the length of the cylinder. The final velocity of the debris should be the initial velocity times the debris mass divided by the sum of the debris mass and the mass of the small plug of gas it directly collided with.

      Playing around with it, it doesn’t seem hard to knock off 10 to 100 m/sec with maybe 1000 kg of gas in a 50 or so meter diameter, while keeping the accelerations fairly low (2 to 10 G) so as not to cause more breakup. Since the delivery vehicle is essentially just pulling a pure vertical flight profile, it should easily survive re-entry for re-use.

      1. George Turner

        Yeah, but 1000 kg of liquid air is dirt cheap, and you just have to time the launch right to make the intercept. If it screws up, it’s all falling straight back down anyway so it won’t contribute the debris problem.

        My thought is that orbital is harder, requiring a much bigger and more capable launch vehicle that would otherwise provide revenues putting stuff up instead of taking it down, and that to track, pursue, and rendezvous with space debris takes a highly capable system with a large ground operator presence. If you have a system that can put X pounds of payload into orbit, you’ll probably make more money putting up a new payload than taking one down, since de-orbiting a payload doesn’t generate revenue for anyone.

        But if you can do the same job with something like a Scout sounding rocket or a piggyback stage on a suborbital, you might be able to beat the removal price of a highly maneuverable and sophisticated garbage-cleanup satellite. Currently there really isn’t a market in it, though the need for one is pretty obvious.

        It will take some number crunching to explore the cost trade offs involved. A well designed orbital satellite could remove far more than one piece of debris, whereas a suborbital shot has to take them down one at a time, and some debris would take multiple missions to bleed their delta V down. But it’s much easier to make a suborbital rocket, even using all solids, than an orbital one, and the ground link is local. It could possibly provide a revenue stream to new space startups.

        And, in closing, your garbage service doesn’t really use the apex of technology because they collect garbage, where cheaper is better.

      2. Dr. d.

        cloud of expanding gas… This is going to sound harsh, but there’s no other way to put it, that’s so wrong that I don’t know where to start.

        Please stop, if you don’t understand physics, don’t write stuff like this for the masses to read, it reflects very poorly on you. I have no idea what your background is but it seems to me like software people are particularly bad at exposing their ignorance of physics in general and space flight specifically, I don’t know why that is.

        1. Andrew W

          We are but children in awe of your great knowledge, please, please share that knowledge with us that we may be enlightened by your wisdom.

        2. George Turner

          Yeah, I’m on pins and needles waiting to hear how everything I’ve learned about physics is completely wrong, and how comet tails and nebula aren’t actually expanding clouds of gas, and that Jim Lovell was hallucinating when he saw LOX venting from Apollo 13.

        3. George Turner

          You know, if you used a Merlin engine on the upper stage of your suborbital vehicle, then once you’ve established a trajectory where its apex is going to be at the orbital altitude of the piece of targeted debris, you roll 90 degrees to align the upper stage with the flight path of the debris and do another 5 second engine burn, putting about 1000 kg of exhaust gas into an expanding cone 15-km long and aligned with the target’s orbit. It will probably be 1000 or so meters in diameter at the far end and expanding radially at about 100 m/sec, assuming a 2-degree exit angle.

          It would be a good illustration of why you don’t fly through another rocket’s exhaust plume.

  2. Larry J

    While the Air Force is the lead service for space, the domain is under the command of the Joint Functional Combatant Commander for Space (JFCC-Space), which itself is under the joint U. S. Strategic Command. To say that the Air Force runs space for the US military is simply inaccurate. The author (and presumably Rand are arguing against something that really doesn’t exist.

    When it comes to system acquisition and operations, the Air Force is lead on space launches, SBIRS, GPS, DMSP, and probably AEHF. The Navy is lead on UHF satcom, currently the MUOS. The Army is lead on X band satcom, currently the WGS constellation.

    The Navy doesn’t do much on space surveillance any more. They operated the Navy Fence, a large bistatic radar that ran across the US, for decades before giving it to the Air Force several years ago. The Air Force manages most of the sensors that make up the Space Surveillance Network (SSN). The Navy just doesn’t appear interested in space surveillance, the critical foundation of space situational awareness. IIRC, the Army manages the sensors at the Reagan Test Center on Kwajalein.

    As far as space debris is concerned, the maritime salvage laws don’t apply. All space objects, down to the smallest debris, still belong to the owners. Unless we change the Outer Space Treaty, we aren’t allowed to remove debris that belongs to others despite the fact that everyone would benefit. This is something we should try to do.

    1. Andrew W

      Unless we change the Outer Space Treaty, we aren’t allowed to remove debris that belongs to others despite the fact that everyone would benefit. This is something we should try to do.

      Wouldn’t ownership of much of the dangerous stuff be impractical to determine, especially if it came from a collision between two satellites with separate ownership?

      1. Larry J

        Actually, for an object to be officially cataloged, they’re required to identify the owner. In cases of breakups (natural or man-made), the orbital analysts first identify the new objects as uncorrelated targets (UCTs). They then do extensive back propagation and modeling to correlate the debris to the original object. In the case of the collision between the Iridium satellite and the defunct Russian comsat several years ago, this correlation took weeks.

        The Air Force has been wanting to build a new X band fence system to replace the old (1961) and now defunct Air Force (originally Navy) Fence. If it’s ever built, it’ll be able to reliably track smaller objects than most other SSN sensors. This will present some problems for the Satellite Catalog. First, the new sensor will likely flood the SatCat with new objects, many of whom it may not be possible to correlate to the owners. Another problem is that the current SatCat structure was designed a long time ago. The maximum number of items in the SatCat is currently 99,999 items but that isn’t the only problem. There are groups of numbers inside that range that have been set aside for specific purposes like analyst satellites and exclusion list items. In a way, it’s kind of like the old 640k barrier in the MSDOS days. Changing the SatCat structure itself to handle more items doesn’t sound all that difficult until you consider all of the software mods required at the existing SSN sensors. Many of the existing sensors are primarily missile warning radars that do space surveillance as a secondary mission. Any hardware or software changes to missile warning sensors require a difficult and expensive ITWAA (Integrated threat warning and attack assessment) testing and certification process. This process is taken very seriously because an error could trigger a nuclear war. Errors happened in the past and they weren’t pretty. Loaded bombers reportedly were launched, ICBM officers were breaking out their launch keys, and many careers were ended as a result.

        As a modification to the treaty, perhaps there should be permission for removing inactive, uncorrelated objects or even a bounty for doing so. An owner should be responsible for removing his own debris or allowed to authorize/contract for others to do so.

  3. Ed Minchau

    Off topic, but why does the “Unprecedented Non-Warming” post not have a way to comment? Is it a wordpress glitch or are you not allowing comments on the post?

  4. Gregg

    As I recall James T. Kirk’s own words in “Tomorrow is Yesterday”:

    “We are a combined service.”

  5. Paul Milenkovic

    How about assigning it to the Ur intergovernmental agency — the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey?

  6. Fletcher Christian

    One problem is that the sort of missions likely in the near future (next 20 years or so) are more suited to Air Force habits and culture than that of the Navy. Short duration, close to a friendly port, small crew, small craft.

    In the further future, it might well be that responsibility for space might be split between Air Force and Navy – or between Air Force and a new Space Command with ethos more like the Navy than other services. Depending on the range and duration of the mission and the size of the vessel.

    The fairly good SF role playing game had an interesting system. Deep-space (in this context including interstellar, but the FTL drive was such that this didn’t make any real difference to tactics and so on) was given to the Navy, which was taken not to include wet navy, and there was another command called COACC (Close Orbit and Airspace Control Command) which had responsibility for airspace and near space – up to GEO, I think.

    A continuing problem with the military in general is mindset. The Navy doesn’t like small craft – in WWII, being assigned to MTBs meant you’d never wear stars, for example. And Air Force doesn’t like ground attack and close air support. Both of these have to change.

    1. Larry J

      Other than contributing astronauts to NASA, neither the Air Force or Navy has anything to do with manned space. All of the services operate satellites and space systems to accomplish specific objectives, such as enabling communications, PNT, weather observation, missile warning, and ISR. If we as a nation ever dare go beyond LEO again, it’s quite likely that some of the astronauts will be military members just the same as we’ve always operated. Should we go to Mars or return to the moon, there won’t be a military logo on the vehicle.

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