Payton: Constellation Cancellation Would Have “Trivial Impact” on Military Space Program

United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy.

USAF Deputy Undersecretary For Space Programs Gary Payton has told Defense News that President Obama’s proposal to cancel the Constellation program would have a “trivial” impact in terms of solid motor production costs. He also said the Air Force could benefit if NASA decides to use an existing expendable for human missions.

Q. Are you concerned about the Constellation decision’s impact on the solid-rocket motor industrial base?

A. We’ve come to find out that it has a trivial impact on space launch because we don’t use the big 3½-meter segmented solids on our EELVs; we use solids that are about 1½ meters in diameter. There is a small ripple effect into space launch, but the dominant industrial base concern, according to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Industrial Policy, is on the ballistic missile side for the Navy and Air Force. We build 30 to 40 stages for the Trident D5 submarine-launched missile every year, and there are about a dozen motors built each year to sustain the Minuteman 3 industrial base. We already know these sustainment costs will go up, but we don’t yet know by how much.

Payton also said that if NASA decides to use Atlas V and Delta IV for human launches, the Air Force would actually benefit from economies of scale as long as changes to the rockets are minimal.

A. If there are increases to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) annual launch rate, that’s a good sign. Right now, we have a plan for United Launch Alliance to do eight launches a year, notionally five for the Air Force, two for the National Reconnaissance Office and one for NASA. So if we can increase that one for NASA up to two or three per year, that would be great for everybody, because we would be buying more rocket engines per year and flying more rockets per year, and that helps with the proficiency of the launch crews.

If some commercial company or companies want to use the EELV for human access to the space station, we’d have to look very closely at changes to the rockets’ design in order to accommodate people. And any of those changes we’d have to manage very closely so that they don’t ripple in to the Air Force design, which has been very successful with 31 successes out of 31 attempts. My view is, if it works, don’t fix it.

One way to safely use these rockets is to build “white tail” EELVs that are the same for everybody. After you assemble them, then you add different things to allow crew inside the launch vehicle. We’d be building more rockets per year, and the critical parts are the same for all users. What I don’t want to see is two separate assembly lines, one that is unique to NASA and another unique for the Air Force and intelligence community. That doesn’t help anybody because their RS-68 engine is different from our RS-68 engine, and their RL-10 engine is different from our RL-10 engine.

Bigelow Aerospace is considering using the Atlas V for launches to its private space station, which it plans to launch in 2014. The Las Vegas based company is looking to launch on multiple vehicles, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

Read the full interview.