August 16, 2006
With no breakthroughs likely in space propulsion or rocket design in the near future, a new family of space-launch vehicles developed for military payloads should satisfy all projected national security needs through 2020, according to a panel convened to examine the program.
However, the federal government likely will be the sole user of these launch vehicles and will therefore need to pay remaining life-cycle costs, according to the final report of the National Security Space Launch Requirements Panel.
In 1994, the U.S. National Space Transportation Policy laid the framework for government agencies to maintain strong launch systems and infrastructure while modernizing space transportation capabilities and encouraging cost reductions.
More than a decade later, through combined investment from the Department of Defense and industry, the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle family of space-launch vehicles (Atlas V and Delta IV) are maturing into reliable, state-of-the-art space transportation systems, according to the panel's report.
In January 2004, Congress directed the Secretary of Defense to establish a panel of experts with extensive space launch and operations backgrounds to address the future national security space launch requirements and the means of meeting those requirements. The Department of Defense selected the RAND Corporation's National Defense Research Institute to provide analytical support to the panel in its deliberations between May 2005 and May 2006.
The eight-member panel found that while the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle families remain early in their life cycles, both appear able to become “workhorse launch vehicles for the future.”
However, the panel found the systems are not likely to attract the commercial payloads that were expected to help support the systems. Originally, both the program's contractors and the Department of Defense expected that the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program would be used by a large and emerging commercial satellite market. But that market collapsed six years ago.
The panel found it unlikely that the Lockheed and Boeing space-launch vehicles will be able to attract other types of commercial payloads because they face stiff competition from lower-cost and state-supported space launch programs in other nations.
This lack of commercial payloads means that the federal government has become the primary user of these space-launch vehicles and must be prepared to pay for and manage the full cost of maintaining the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, according to the panel's report.
Consistent with the objectives of the U.S. National Space Transportation Policy, the panel says that NASA should continue to be encouraged to use the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program to launch its space science and post-Space Shuttle resupply missions to the International Space Station.
The panel also supports allowing new commercial launch providers to compete to be an alternative to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. However, no clear public policies currently are in place to facilitate such competition.
Both Congress and the U.S. Air Force have expressed interest in developing a more responsive launch model, known as Operational Responsive Space. For small payloads and very short launch notices, such a new launch architecture would supplement the current “launch on schedule” Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program with one that would “launch on demand” to meet the largely unplanned needs of the U.S. military.
The panel report notes that there is potential benefit to such a new launch architecture, but found little documentation that such an architecture has mature, well-defined requirements. In addition, the panel concluded that an extraordinary investment to rapidly create a more-responsive launch architecture would not be cost-effective until the need is clearly documented, operational concepts are defined, and potential payloads are identified.
The panel report was produced by RAND's National Defense Research Institute, which conducts research and analysis for sponsors including the Office of the Secretary of Defense, defense agencies and the U.S. Intelligence Community.
Printed copies of the “National Security Space Launch Report” (ISBN: 0-8330-3959-8) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services (email@example.com or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).