Air Force's top space official concerned about long-term industrial base support

Wednesday - 7/23/2014, 4:01am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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The commander of the Air Force's Space Command says it's time for the U.S. to get moving on a multi-year program to build a new rocket engine for space launches.

Not only would it reduce the nation's dependence on Russia, Gen. William Shelton said, but the program would bolster a vital but dwindling portion of the defense industrial base.

For now at least, it's business as usual in terms of U.S. procurements of the Russian-made RD-180 engine, Shelton said, despite recent political tensions between the two countries.

But that doesn't mean officials aren't nervous. In theory, the Russian government could cut off the supply of that vital component of the U.S. space launch program at any moment. Or it could refuse to sell the engines for any mission relating to national security. Or Congress could altogether bar agencies from buying the engines for any reason.

"The events of the last week or so certainly aren't confidence builders," Shelton told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday afternoon. "We need to understand what the relationship between our two governments will look like for the longer term. And if Congress tells us to cease on the RD-180s, it will be time and money. Anything we do differently than what we've got planned right now, start writing checks."

The Air Force estimates that losing access to the RD-180 would cost the government anywhere between $1.8 billion and $5 billion, partially because the launches of very expensive satellites would be delayed, and partially because some of the missions that did move forward would hitch a ride to space on more expensive alternatives.

Right now, the Defense Department, NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office rely on the RD-180 to power the Atlas V rocket. Shelton said that's because it's the best engine in the world at the moment, and there's no American-built competitor that's as reliable or as cheap.

Plan is to stockpile

The government's strategy up until now has been to hedge against a supply disruption by ordering enough of the engines to build up a stockpile. Fifteen are in storage right now, and five more are due for delivery between now and October. Agencies currently use the engines for about seven launches per year.

"If we just executed the manifest as it's laid out today, that would give us two years of capability," he said. "If we decided we wanted to meter things differently and use those engines just for the highest priority launches, we think we could stretch that out some, but that would take literally a national decision on where the priorities lie. NASA's got interplanetary missions that are high-priority for them. NRO has reconnaissance missions that are high-priority for them, and DoD has high-priority launches. So the claims for those 15 precious engines will come from those three sectors."

Even if Congress decided to move forward right now with a program to engineer a U.S.-built replacement for the Russian engine, it would most likely not be completed before the current supply of RD-180s ran out. Shelton acknowledged some industry estimates show a new engine could be built within four years, but by the government's reckoning, it would take between five and eight years for the first engine to roll off of an assembly line.

In any case, he said it's important to get started as soon as possible, not just because of the current tensions with Russia, but because the U.S. risks losing vital capabilities in its industrial base without any major rocket engine development programs underway.

"I think we've still got a lot of people in the country that have liquid rocket engine experience. We have [NASA's] Marshall Space Flight Center, the Air Force Research Laboratory and at least a couple commercial companies. But the scope is much different than what it's been in the past," he said. "We really haven't built a new rocket engine in this country since the early 2000s — that's the rocket on the bottom of the Delta IV. ... That doesn't bring in the new blood with people coming right out of college. We've got a lot of experienced people out there that can start to guide this, but we need a lot more people to really run this program. I think it would be a big boon to the industrial base."

Launch scheduled

On Wednesday, the Air Force will conduct its latest space launch when it sends a Delta IV rocket into orbit, carrying with it the first satellites in a new program that until earlier this year was still a secret.

The Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) will position several satellites just above the geosynchronous orbit that's occupied by other satellites from countries around the world, in order to keep tabs on what other nations are doing in space.

"This neighborhood watch will help protect our precious assets in [geosynchronous equatorial orbit], plus they will be on the lookout for nefarious capability other nations might try to place in that critical orbital regime," Shelton said. "We do have an inherent right to safely maneuver around and monitor potentially- threatening satellites. This is a big leap forward in our situational awareness in geosynchronous orbit."

Shelton said it's not as though the U.S. didn't already have systems to track satellites and other objects in Earth orbit before the GSSAP program, but those systems are primitive by comparison.

"Today, the way we do it is by points of light. We take a picture of the sky, and the things that are moving are satellites, the things that are stationary are stars," he said. "This gives us the ability to look at literal images instead of just points of light. Before, we've made inferences about what a particular satellite can do. A picture is worth a thousand inferences, because we can literally see what the satellite looks like, reverse engineer it and understand its capabilities, probably not to 100 percent, but to a much greater extent than we can today."

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