Video: Gen. Shelton of Air Force Space Command at FAA Conference

Gen. William L. Shelton, Commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, talks during the 15th FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference. There’s a nifty video at the beginning showing fictional space exploration along side vehicles now in development.

The full transcript is reproduced after the break.

Keynote Speech at the 15th Annual FAA Commerical Space Transportation Conference
Gen. William L. Shelton, Commander, Air Force Space Command, AFSPC/CC
Washington, D.C.

General Shelton: George, thanks for that great introduction. Secretary Porcari, Administrator Huerta, ladies, and gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to be here this morning to discuss the future of space transportation.

Given that the transportation element of our space business is the critical first step, so to speak, I am more than just a casual observer of the advances in commercial space in this area.

So I thought I’d give you my perspective on what I consider to be the critical aspects of the space launch business to include both the government and the commercial sides.

First, in kind of a down-home fashion, I’ll talk about why the space launch business is just plain hard–principally due to the physics involved. Then I’ll talk about the need for some new technology to enable not only reduced costs in space launch, but also more routine launch operations. And finally, I’ll talk about what we’re doing today to achieve our longer-range vision for launch, including how we in the Air Force are actively working with other government agencies to reduce some of our launch constraints.

So why is launch so hard, and why do we have a celebration of every successful launch? Well, from many years ago, I can remember an AF general who chided the AF space community for celebrating every launch. He said, “Why do we celebrate every launch when we don’t celebrate every F-16 launch, so to speak–why do we make such a big deal of every launch?”

While I took his broader point, which was that we needed to make this business more routine, I remember I wanted to take him down to Cape Canaveral or out to Vandenberg and I wanted to put him underneath one of those big Titan IV rockets. Have him stand inside the nozzle of the first stage and look up. Take him to the top of the rocket, let him look down, and appreciate for himself the sheer size of that beast. And finally I wanted to take him to see the payload on top, hand-made marvels which are national treasures and so important to our national security.

As a mere Lt Col at the time, as you might imagine, that opportunity didn’t exactly present itself, but my point to him would have been this: with the current state of our propulsion technology, there are many simultaneous near-miracles required in that controlled explosion to get that big rocket and that payload into orbit.

Back to his broader point: should it be more routine today? To that I would say, absolutely. Do our satellites need to be hand-made marvels? I don’t think so.

For me all this falls from where we are in our current space technology — there are design trades, there are mission assurance requirements, there are operational concepts, and there are many other factors that could be very different with a different space transportation capability.

More on that later, but back to why this is hard. Just for a few moments, let’s talk about the energy required to get to orbit. This is the down-home part. So let’s take an object the size of something we know, say a fighter aircraft, and imagine it’s capable of spaceflight.

Just to get it to the right altitude–just to overcome gravity enough to be at a typical Low Earth Orbit altitude –takes about 900 gigajoules of energy. 900 gigajoules… OK, I don’t speak gigajoules either, so here’s a way to think about it.

Take the amount of energy in a gallon of gasoline, and then use that energy to drive your average car, and then figure out how far 900 gigajoules of energy would take us. Turns out 900 gigajoules of energy takes that car almost 17 thousand miles–equivalent to driving two-thirds of the way around the earth.

And that’s the easy part! We just got the vehicle to the right altitude; we certainly haven’t gotten it to the right speed. If I want to achieve orbital velocity as well, I need even more energy.

Out of Cape Canaveral, that vehicle is already going about 900 miles per hour in an easterly direction courtesy of the Earth’s rotation. To stay in orbit, we’ve got to accelerate it to about 17,000 miles per hour.

The energy requirement to do that is huge: the equivalent gasoline energy would take our car 150,000 miles, or about six times around the globe. And it only takes about 75% more energy to get that spacecraft all the way out to geosynchronous orbit, even though that orbit is over 100 times low earth orbit.

This just proves that overcoming near-earth gravity and getting to LEO is the hardest part of every space mission. And we haven’t taken into account the energy required to accelerate the booster and fuel mass that it’s carrying.

So here’s the point: the physics just makes it hard: gravity, atmospheric drag, structural mass–all of it works against you. Fortunately, we know how to do this, but it’s far from routine. And we still celebrate launches, because we know this is not easy.

There are some technological breakthroughs we desperately need if we hope to get better in space launch. Far and away the most important of these is space propulsion.

Rocket engines are the mainstays of spaceflight. And quite honestly, there hasn’t been a fundamental breakthrough in rocket technology in decades. I’ve often said that the person or the company who makes this fundamental breakthrough will become very wealthy. And I truly believe that.

But to illustrate my point about propulsion technology, the engines we’re currently using are old, and in some cases really old. The newest engine we use today is used in the first stage of the Delta IV and, it’s some 20 years old.

Our Atlas V main engines are based on a 1970s Soviet-era design. Both those vehicles’ upper stages are powered by engines originally designed back in the 1950s. It’s the cost of launch–based largely on the cost of these old designed, hand-tweaked engines–that also drives the way we’re currently doing the satellite business.

Because getting them to orbit is so expensive, we design highly-redundant, multi-function, long-lived satellites. But imagine the design trades you could make if it were, say, an order of magnitude cheaper to get to orbit. We could make our satellites less complex and, in some cases, smaller, and those kinds of payloads would require smaller, less expensive launch vehicles.

Because it’s so expensive to launch, we want the satellites to live very long, so by the time you reach end of life of the satellite on orbit, your sensor and computing technology can be anywhere from 20-30 years old. And with Moore’s law operating on computing technology, that’s a good 15 to 20 generations out of date.

Cheaper launch would open up design trades that could allow more frequent tech refresh on orbit, which would create demand for more launches…you see the circle here. This is a cycle we could take advantage of.

And given my responsibilities, given the rising threats in space, smaller and more satellites complicates an adversary’s targeting problem, so we get enhanced satellite constellation resiliency as a side benefit.

The good news is our current engines are efficient–in fact, very efficient. But we pay a big premium for getting just about every joule of energy that oxygen, hydrogen, and kerosene can deliver from those engines.

As I said before, these engines were designed long ago, and we count on the skills of individual technicians to hand-build these engines. As an example, each of the Atlas and Delta upper stage engines requires almost 8,000 man-touch-hours–more than goes into putting together a hand-built Lamborghini. During manufacture, workers hand-bend over 350 plumbing tubes for the combustion chamber and nozzle using wooden frames as the guide. Surely there is a better way.

Within AFSPC, we’re looking toward design of a new upper stage, one that should be much easier and cheaper to manufacture. It should also have increased performance margins so we can reduce some of our mission assurance concerns based on operating our current engines so near their red-lines.

We’re also watching very closely as the many civilian companies work toward entering the commercial unmanned and manned spaceflight markets. Some of their new engines are very interesting, and we’re posturing ourselves to use them once they’ve sufficiently proven their reliability.

Regardless of how we get there–non-proprietary government-developed engines, or industry designs, or some combination of the two–if we can get the costs down significantly through engine improvements it will open up space for so many more uses.

Regrettably, none of this represents that fundamental breakthrough we need. It will achieve cost reductions, but it won’t be the revolutionary way to get to space that we’re looking for. And as I demonstrated earlier, we really have a very basic and huge energy problem getting spacecraft up the hill.

So working to reduce engine costs will certainly help, but the payoff is likely several years down the road.

An area where we can make the most near-term difference frankly, is in how we procure our boosters. We’re already working on that.

You’ve likely heard that we’re developing an economic order quantity approach in concert with our Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle partner, United Launch Alliance.

Essentially, we’ve asked ULA to fill in a matrix of what price they would charge for 6 to 10 boosters per year across a range of 3 to 5 years. We’re anticipating that matrix will reveal a sweet spot, an area we can take advantage of to significantly reduce our costs.

By purchasing economic order quantities of boosters, we will allow ULA to order economically advantageous quantities of parts from all levels of their supply chain. This will lead to parts and raw materials at much lower rates, which will be reflected in a lower price structure for the booster. They and their suppliers also will have a much more dependable work flow, reducing uncertainty and lowering each level of the supply chain’s business risk exposure.

We expect that decreased risk will contribute to lower prices and should produce considerable savings over many years. And those cost savings won’t only benefit the AF. Other organizations like the National Reconnaissance Office and NASA, as well as commercial users who use these common booster cores, will all benefit from these supply chain improvements.

That approach is good for EELV, but there are new players, new entrants, new ideas to the launch business that we’re monitoring for potential national security application.

Clearly the commercial space transportation industry is focused on better ways of doing business–the profit motive thing is very, very powerful. And truthfully, I hope they’re wildly successful so we can get to that general’s belief that this business should be analogous to an F-16 take-off, or a commercial jet’s take-off for that matter.

I believe part of the problem for commercial providers is going to be the frequency of launch. Space tourism will help, as will NASA’s decision to do space station resupply via commercial sources.

But my concern is this: is there enough business there to drive the needed innovation and competition?

Last year, we launched 10 times from Cape Canaveral, 7 times from Vandenberg, 1 from Wallops Island, and 1 from Kodiak, Alaska. This year the forecast is 11 from the Cape, 4 from Vandenberg, 1 from Wallops and none from Kodiak. And 2013 looks very similar.

Admittedly, this doesn’t account for the traffic from all spaceports, and if tourism really takes off in the next few years, the number of spaceflights will clearly jump. But that traffic is not about getting satellites and cargo to orbit–at least not yet. The hope is those flights could teach us a lot about making spaceflight more routine, which could have fundamental impacts on the way we do business today.

Our National Space Policy directs all of us in this business to work jointly to enhance capabilities and assure access to space. Currently, our two most active government partners are the National Reconnaissance Office and NASA.

I’ve already mentioned the 17 launches we had from our Eastern and Western Ranges at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg AFB last year. What I didn’t mention was that of those launches, 13 were for NASA and the NRO, including the last three Shuttle missions. AFSPC manages much of the launch and range infrastructure for those launches.

But our launch bases are 50 to 60 years old and are showing their age. As we work to revitalize these critical national assets, it’s my vision that that they become planned communities instead of the hodgepodge of one-off capabilities and specialty functions they are now. It’s obviously in the interest of all using agencies to collaborate on any changes we’re going to make to existing architectures, concepts of operations, or policy.

Toward that end, we’re joint partners with NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program at the Kennedy Space Center. Together, we’re looking at future requirements for the Eastern Range.

The end result of this partnership will be a range that is more modern and much less expensive to operate. We’ll work together to eliminate duplication of effort and increase standardization, eliminating outdated and unnecessary equipment along the way and frankly making the eastern range a better place to fly rockets from.

But perhaps the most important way we’re cooperating is in the field of space situational awareness.

Space situational awareness is a key enabler to all space missions, not only AFSPC, NRO, and NASA missions but missions controlled by all the world’s nations. AFSPC currently monitors about 22,000 objects 10 centimeters or larger in orbit around the Earth, and about 1,000 of them are active satellites.

The Chinese shoot-down of one of their satellites and a collision between a dead Russian satellite and an American communications satellite increased that number by over 5,000 objects just since 2007 alone. As that accidental collision graphically demonstrates, we can no longer ignore the need for robust space situational awareness.

SSA is a critical input to the joint NRO / AFSPC Space Protection Program, and is also routinely used by NASA to safeguard their manned and unmanned missions. The International Space Station has been moved twice just this year to avoid tracked objects, and in fact just last Monday NASA Mission Control stood down from another alert for an object that potentially threatened the ISS. These alerts all come from information that we provide routinely to users around the world.

So engine design, economies of scale, launch range improvements, SSA–these are just a few of the many ways my command and our launch partners are cooperating to help reduce the cost and risk associated with orbital operations.

And as commercial space transportation industry continues to mature, we will need to make that industry an joint partner with us in all of these cooperative efforts, just as AFSPC, the NRO, and NASA are today.

So as I wrap up and take your questions, I want to reemphasize that launch today just flat requires lots of energy and in my opinion it costs too much. But despite these issues, our success record over the last decade speaks for itself.

We will continue to make it more efficient through engine design and purchasing improvements. But frankly, this is marginal stuff when compared to that fundamental breakthrough to open up the design trades and enable much greater use of the promise of space.

And our current hope is that commercial industry can produce just that over the next several years.

I hope I’ve stimulated some thought on where we need to go and what we need to do to get there. Thanks for the opportunity to speak to you this morning, and I look forward to your questions.