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RLV concept
The Air Force is again revisiting RLV concepts like this one that could be essential to the long-term future of US government and commercial space access. (credit: SpaceWorks Engineering, Inc.)

Yet another episode in America’s RLV soap opera

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According to a recent report in Aviation Week and Space Technology, the Air Force has discovered that without NASA’s support, the cost of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program is going to radically increase. Even if the Air Force can convince NASA as well as a few commercial customers to buy more Delta 4 and Atlas 5 vehicles, paying for the infrastructure and the rest of the overhead for these rockets is going to put serious pressure on the USAF’s space budget for the foreseeable future. So once again they are turning to the best and most logical answer to the long-term launch cost dilemma: reusable launch vehicles (RLVs).

The scale and cost of building a fully operational RLV system will require a national commitment similar to the Saturn 5 or the Shuttle.

The Defense Department has been here before. Even if we leave aside the question of why the Space Shuttle was designed the way it was, the US military has had an intermittent, inconsistent, and inadequately funded interest in this technology going back at least to the DC-X program of the early 1990s. The sad saga of the X-33, which was supposed to lead to a shuttle replacement, should be a cautionary tale for all involved.

In spite of a few promising new technological advances, the scale and cost of building a fully operational RLV system will require a national commitment similar to the Saturn 5 or the Shuttle. Even worse, the new system will have to start from almost nothing, since, unlike the NASA Constellation program, it will not be able to build on any pre-existing hardware.

Another problem is that the Air Force wants the new system to fly its first missions in 2025. Even assuming that they can meet such a schedule, the chances that the program could survive the scrutiny of two or three new administrations and at least six new Congresses seem minimal. If the early development funding is inadequate, then the future costs will inevitable overrun the original estimates. If, on the other hand, the Pentagon asks Congress for enough money up front to ensure that the design and development is done on a solid basis, they risk sticker shock.

Yet there is no question that the nation needs a strong RLV program if it is to maintain its global leadership role in space. If, by the middle of the next decade, the US does have an operational heavy-lift launcher—either the Ares 5 or something alternative—and a medium- and medium-heavy-class RLV, it will regain the unquestioned position of space superiority that seems now to be slipping away. However, the sad fact is that too many RLV programs in the past have failed due to a lack of sustained political support.

According to the report in Aviation Week, the proposed Reusable Booster System (RBS) has all the hallmarks of a classic RLV program. It hopes to begin with a small demonstrator that will fly around 2013, followed by a larger scale model in 2016–2017. This kind of step-by-step approach is an excellent idea; if adequately funded and managed by skilled professionals it should succeed. The sad fact is that both funds and competent manpower are in short supply, so the Air Force would have give this program a high priority in order to see it through to completion.

The Air Force’s B-29 bomber secured US dominance of the post-World War Two commercial aviation industry; the RBS could do the same for space access.

NASA has already begun talks with the Air Force on cooperation on the new heavy-lift rocket liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon engine, the article noted. This kind of partnership seems logical, but the record of USAF/NASA cooperation on RLV programs such as the DC-X and the X-33 has been less than stellar. It may be wise for the two organizations to keep an arms’ length relationship on this program. After all, if the RBS comes to depend on NASA’s new engine and that program is cancelled—like so many other NASA programs have been—it would leave the military with the unfortunate choice of fully funding a new rocket engine program or canceling their program and keeping the EELVs in operation until 2040 or even longer.

If the Air Force can build the RBS, and if it operates with anything resembling the efficiency and cost effectiveness that they hope to achieve, the it will be the core element in US spacelift technology for the next fifty years. The Air Force’s B-29 bomber secured US dominance of the post-World War Two commercial aviation industry; the RBS could do the same for space access. This will only be possible if the Defense Department has the courage and the vision to fully fund the program right from the start.

The RBS could be used as the first stage of a variety of space vehicles, both manned and unmanned. It could, for example, carry a large winged “space taxi” type of spaceplane to service both a future government space station or a private manned space facility or space hotel, depending on the circumstances. It could also be used to economically launch large structures into orbit such as those needed for a large space solar power satellite or a space factory.

Without a national commitment to a program that will radically lower the costs of access to orbit, none of the promises being made by NASA or by the Air Force can be met, certainly not in the long term. If the Air Force follows NASA down the path towards an unfocused hodgepodge of small technology development programs, it will be putting the powerful US array of space assets in long-term jeopardy.