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DC-X
In much the same way that early tilt-rotor experimental aircraft a half-century ago paved thew way for the V-22, the DC-X (above) might be the first step towards an operational RLV for the Marines. (credit: NASA)

Low-cost access to orbit: space Marines to the rescue

After spending more than $1.3 billion of both federal and Lockheed Martin money on the X-33, which was sold as the first step towards a shuttle replacement, the whole idea of reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) seems pretty discredited. Today, both NASA and the Defense Department have given up on the hope that an RLV can be built anytime soon. Radically lowering the cost of access to space is now said to be just a pipe dream. Inside the US government, the belief reigns that a single stage to orbit (SSTO) or a two stage to orbit (TSTO) RLV that would reduce launch costs to less than several hundred dollars per kilogram to low Earth orbit (LEO) would be impossible to build within a reasonable time frame or budget.

The United States Marines are not, and have never been, “reasonable,” and with good reason. Reasonable people don’t win battles. As one naval officer once put it, “Marine norms are designed to produce institutional heroism in the heat of combat.” For years, the Marine Corps was forced to make do with weapons and equipment handed down from the Army or Navy. They were allowed few independent design, development, and procurement programs. About thirty years ago, this began to change when, alone among the services, they were able to push the leaders inside the Pentagon to allow them to buy the controversial Harrier jump jet.

It is worth pointing out that the V-22 is the first operational product to come out of a technology development and maturation process that goes back half a century.

More recently, they have been the primary source of pressure to buy the V-22 Osprey tilt rotor assault aircraft. This is an expensive, technologically challenging project that has survived in spite of all its problems, including several deadly crashes, and in the face of Dick Cheney’s attempt to cancel it when he was Secretary of Defense. It now exists largely because the Marines persuaded enough people in Congress and the executive branch that the greatly increased speed and range of the V-22 over the helicopter it will replace is worth both the costs and risks involved.

It is also worth pointing out that the V-22 is the first operational product to come out of a technology development and maturation process that goes back half a century. From the XV-3, which first flew in 1955, to the XV-15, whose first flight was in 1979, the idea of a tilt rotor craft that could overcome many of the inherent drawbacks of the helicopter was pursued with grit and determination by a generation of engineers and scientists, notably at NASA’s Ames Research Center and at the Bell Helicopter Company. At some point in 2007, we can expect the first squadron of Marine Corps V-22s to be declared operational. Though they cannot take credit for the original idea, the Marines are the ones who saw its strategic importance and were ready to fight for it both inside the bureaucracy and on Capitol Hill.

One can only hope that we are seeing the beginning of a similar process with RLV technology. In July 2002, the Marine Corps released a Universal Needs Statement that defined the Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion (SUSTAIN) concept that, if successful, will give the US a “…heretofore unimaginable assault support speed, range, altitude and strategic surprise” capability. SUSTAIN is an RLV that will carry a squad (13 men) into space and land it anywhere on Earth within two hours with, among other requirements, “flexible launch on demand… to any orbital inclination.”

According to the needs statement, SUSTAIN is required because the US has virtually no ability to respond rapidly to current intelligence. This means that if there are strong indicators that a major terrorist leader is hiding in a particular village, it will take anywhere between 12 to 48 hours before the US military could launch an attempt to capture or kill him. To put it another way, intelligence information can move at the speed of light but commando forces, no matter how good, can only move at the speed of a C-17 or other transport aircraft.

When this requirement was published, the reaction of the space community, including many RLV advocates was, to put it politely, extremely skeptical. Neither the major defense contractors nor the space entrepreneurs have shown that they have any ability to build SUSTAIN, or even to demonstrate that the systems and materials needed could be developed in less than a decade. At first glance, it looks like a typical example of US technological overreach. On closer examination, though, it would seem that the men and women who wrote this requirement were not smoking illegal substances, but rather had a time frame in mind that more or less conforms to historical experience.

If the Marines do not lose sight of their goal, they will support a series of small-scale programs that will relentlessly seek out and support those individuals and companies working on technologies that will make the SUSTAIN vehicle a reality.

In his July 2003 statement to the Senate Subcommittee of Science, Technology and Space, Marine Corps Brigadier General Richard Zilmer said that “this challenging requirement is projected for initial operating capability (IOC) between 2025 and 2030.” That is, about 32 to 37 years after the first flight of the DC-X, which is the true precursor of the entire RLV idea. If one adds ten years, due to the usual delays inherent in any program of this sort, one gets near the half century that it seems to take to bring any revolutionary new major aerospace system into full service.

A realistic IOC date for SUSTAIN would thus be between 2035 and 2045. From the present until then, one can expect that the problems of materials, flight controls, and propulsion that now doom any near-term RLV effort will be solved. Just as similar problems on the V-22 were taken care of by advances in computer technology and engine design, a small-scale but long-term effort to take advantage of future technological progress could realistically lead to a decision to go ahead with the development of a SUSTAIN-type vehicle sometime around 2020.

Between now and then, if the Marines do not lose sight of their goal, they will support a series of small-scale programs that will relentlessly seek out and support those individuals and companies working on technologies that will make the SUSTAIN vehicle a reality. This should not cost too much money. There are a number of places inside the Defense Department and NASA where relevant work is already being done—at the Air Force Research Laboratory, for example. The Marines should be ready to bring their formidable lobbying and bureaucratic skills to buttress this research and to protect it from the budget cutters.

A fully operational SUSTAIN type vehicle would also be the preferred low-cost way to get cargo and personnel to and from LEO. It would be a way to connect with future Mars-bound spaceships that might be assembled in orbit using the shuttle-derived heavy-lift launcher now in the early stages of development for the Vision for Space Exploration. Civilian versions could play an important role in truly opening up cislunar space to profitable commercial activity. All the good things that the RLV advocates claimed would happen when the cost of access to orbit is reduced will flow from a successful SUSTAIN program.

If so, once again, the Marines will have saved the day.


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