U.S. Air Force Looks for Better, Cheaper Launch Vehicles

You would think that the U.S. Air Force would be pretty happy with its space program. The last 81 national security launches have gone off without fail. The Air Force has access to two highly-reliable United Launch Alliance (ULA) launch vehicles, Atlas V and Delta IV, for its large, billion dollar payloads. And there is a stable of less powerful boosters for smaller satellite launches.

But, alas, not all is well over at Air Force Space Command:

The U.S. must overcome the growing challenges of rising launch costs and aging propulsion systems if it is to gain much needed efficiencies and maintain its global lead, warns Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command.

Making the case for urgent action in the face of severe budget cuts, Shelton argues strongly in favor of the development of new main and upper-stage engines, which he believes are pivotal to the future of U.S launch capability. Speaking at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics New Horizon Forum here, Shelton says “to get better in space launch we need newer, more efficient engines to enable much more robust access to space.”

Although the past 81 consecutive national security launches mark “an unprecedented record” for U.S. space launch, Shelton says “we pay a huge financial premium for that success.” Alternatives must be found to offset these costs, he adds. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we want to do launch on the cheap, but there are places we can look to reduce costs without affecting our sterling record of success,” he says.

Speaking specifically about the RS-68 and RL10 engines that form the propulsion backbone of the current Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launcher fleet, Shelton says “the RS-68 was designed about 20 years ago and the RL10 was originally designed back in the 1950s — for technology that’s pretty doggone old.”

Fortunately, there is serious work being done on these problems. ULA is working with XCOR to develop a new upper stage for the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets that would provide significant cost savings. SpaceX is developing its Falcon Heavy rocket specifically to serve the national security market. And there is a process in place for certifying new rockets to launch military and civilian government payloads. None of these options will result in rapid changes, however. They will all take a few years to complete.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has awarded ULA a $1.5 billion contract for five Atlas V launches and four Delta IV launches. This is a significant cut from the Air Force’s plan to purchase 40 ULA launch vehicles at a cost of $15 billion. Critics said the bulk buy was flawed because it was based on insufficient price data and management insight, charges that ULA rejected. SpaceX Founder Elon Musk also criticized the move as maintaining ULA’s monopoly over large military launches.