In today’s Space.com, Leonard David reports on a speech by Peter Teets, the Undersecretary of the Air Force, and his thoughts on military space. While some of them are encouraging, others indicate that much of his mindset still remains mired in the past. Not surprising, since he’s a former Lockheed Martin executive, who’s spent his entire career there (the past, that is…)
The use of spacecraft for national security purposes and to combat terrorism is on a dramatic growth curve. That increased reliance calls for new spaceborne abilities, protection of orbiting hardware, quick access to space, and an overhaul of how America’s military and security organizations utilize satellite assets.
So far, so good. Particularly the part about “quick access to space.” That almost intrinsically implies much-lower-cost access to space. NASA doesn’t need it (except for crew rescue, but they have a different, and flawed, plan for that), but the DoD does.
Teets said he has started looking at the issue of assured access to space.
“When we want to go, we’ve got to be able to go,” Teets said. But in this arena, there are “a couple of disturbing factors,” he said.
In reviewing the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, Teets said, “I find there’s some single points of failure.”
Teets said the RL-10 engine used in Boeing’s Delta IV launcher is a worry. “If an RL-10 engine has a significant flight problem, we’re going to be down for a while. I’d like to see us move ahead with an effort that would eliminate that single point failure,” he said.
In the case of Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V, that vehicle uses a new Russian-designed and -built Atlas RD-180 engine. Use of rocket engine propulsion technology that is not produced in the United States, and cannot currently be produced in the United States, “troubles me some,” Teets said,
Well, if he gets the show on the road and develops true fast-response capability (i.e., reusable space transports), EELV will become obsolete anyway. I think that his concern is overblown here. Russia is reasonable, as long as you come with money in hand–Aerojet or Pratt could certainly do a license deal to start manufacturing RD-180s domestically, given sufficient incentive. And to worry about the RL-10, an engine that has been in use in one form or another for almost four decades, with a superlative track record, suddenly coming down with some sort of endemic design problem is a waste of worry resources.
What he really needs to be focusing on is how to move beyond EELV and expendables in general (probably difficult, given his Lockmart pedigree). We are not going to get space control from EELV, regardless of how many different engines we have to choose from.
But that’s the problem, because where he really goes off the rails is when he starts talking about reusables:
“Clearly, NASA is looking for a shuttle replacement vehicle. Military space probably doesn’t have the same lift requirements [as does] the shuttle replacement,” Teets said. Furthermore, while manned space will ultimately be important to the Air Force, “it’s probably not the first priority for a reusable launch system,” he said.
“We all know that when you build manned space into a launch system, it’s a really different dynamic,” Teets said. “My attitude is to embrace the relationship with NASA?move forward in both NASA’s interests as well as national security space interest.”
Yes, “we all know that.” However, what he apparently doesn’t know is that when it comes to building reusable transports, putting a pilot in probably makes it not harder and more expensive, but easier and cheaper.
“Man-rating” is one of those terms that people throw around in launch vehicle discussions to sound like they’re technically sophisticated, but very few people really understand the term, or what it involves, or the proper context for it. Sure, if you’re going to strap folks to the top of a piece of expendable munitions, it makes sense to put in an escape system, and to take extra time and dollars to maximize the reliability of the manufactured and assembled vehicle. Particularly since each time it’s launched is both the first, and the last time.
But when we start talking about space transports, we have to approach it entirely differently. In this case, one expects to get the vehicle back, and the vehicle itself becomes much more valuable and irreplaceable than the crew. The military should certainly be used to the concept of occasionally losing a test pilot–we don’t want to infect them with the NASA disease. This is not to say that measures won’t be taken to minimize chance of vehicle loss, but they are the same measures that would be taken if it were unmanned, because as the article describes below, they are talking about a vehicle that they expect to cost a couple of billion dollars to replace (though I think that this is a ridiculous number).
But the nice thing is that it turns out that vehicles have a lot better chance of coming home if they have a pilot. And there can be a lot of cost savings in not having to design the avionics to be totally autonomous.
Boeing doesn’t “man rate” their air transports. They simply design and test them to safely carry people, with a flight crew. Space transports will have exactly the same design philosophy.
But one wouldn’t expect a former Chief Operating Officer of Lockmart to understand that.
And they still apparently don’t understand how critical it is to get some competition back into this business:
The prospect of a joint, Air Force-NASA flight demonstration vehicle has been discussed.
One idea is for the two organizations to pony up $900 million each, resulting in a flight demonstrator taking to space in 2006. Termed a “Y” vehicle versus an “X” vehicle, the Air Force would make operational use of the craft following a series of flight tests.
$1.8B for a single prototype.
Insane. Did they learn nothing from X-33?
Apparently that’s exactly what they learned…