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Lampson and Rohrabacher
Congressmen Nick Lampson (left) and Dana Rohrabacher question witnesses on the benefits and drawbacks of closer space transportation cooperation during the March 18 hearing. (credit: J. Foust)

NASA, the Air Force, and space transportation: room for cooperation?

At first glance it would seem like NASA and the US Air Force would have a lot in common in space transportation—both have pressing needs to place payloads in space reliably—that would lend itself to cooperation. In practice that hasn’t been the case: the different requirements and cultures of the two agencies have largely precluded any significant cooperation. When they have cooperated the results have often been disappointing, as was the case most infamously with the space shuttle.

Indeed, by the 1990s the two agencies were so jaded about cooperation on space transportation issues that the White House took steps to clearly separate the two. Under the National Space Transportation Policy of 1994, the Defense Department was given responsibility for expendable launch vehicle (ELV) development, while NASA was charged with reusable launch vehicle (RLV) programs. The former led to the development of the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, while the latter featured a series of programs including the DC-XA (inherited from the military), X-33, X-34, and the Space Launch Initiative. There have been a few exceptions to this—the Air Force participated in the NASA-Boeing X-37 program for a time—but by and large this division has remained in place for a decade.

There are signs of change, though, including the possibility for renewed cooperation between NASA and the Air Force. NASA is now focused on the new exploration initiative; while this program may require the development of a new (perhaps shuttle- or EELV-derived) launch vehicle, it won’t involve an RLV, given the multiple failures NASA has had in this arena in the last decade. At the very least it will require man-rating the EELVs that will launch the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), a process that will demand some degree of cooperation between NASA and the Air Force regarding process and funding. To address these issues, representatives of NASA, the Defense Department, and industry testified before the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee on March 18. Their testimony suggested willingness among all involved for increased cooperation, as well as the role both NASA and the military could take supporting new launch ventures.

Current and future cooperation

While there has been little cooperation between NASA and the Air Force on developing space transportation systems in the last decade, there has been cooperation in other areas. Officials of the two agencies noted that they routinely work together on issues such as use of the Eastern and Western Ranges at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg, respectively, as well as use of Air Force launch vehicles for some NASA missions, notably the launch of Cassini on a Titan 4B in 1997. That same year saw the formation of the Space Partnership Council, an interagency group whose members include the administrator of NASA, the commander of the Air Force Space Command, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office, the commander of the US Strategic Command, and the director of Defense Research and Engineering.

“Both the Atlas and Delta boosters have the potential to be rated for human flight and modified to meet very heavy lift needs,” Dickman said. “Should NASA choose to do so, the DoD will work with NASA to facilitate their efforts.”

It is the Partnership Council that will be the likely forum for discussions regarding greater cooperation between NASA and the military on space transportation issues. This will include Project Constellation, the new NASA program to develop the CEV and related systems. “Project Constellation will be discussed at the Partnership Council this spring to ensure that our space partners in the DoD [Department of Defense] are kept fully informed about its implementation,” said Craig Steidle, new NASA associate administrator for exploration systems.

One of the reasons to bring it up is that the CEV will likely require an EELV to launch it, which in turn will require man-rating one or more launch vehicles. “Discussions are underway with the DoD on the topic of assured access to space, exploring the possibility of human rating and enhancing the performance and reliability of launch systems to support the nation’s vision for space exploration, and defining a science and technology strategy that will advance the nation’s ability to meet its future launch needs,” Steidle said.

Robert Dickman, the deputy under secretary of the Air Force for military space, indicated that the military would be open to working with NASA on EELV modification issues. “Both the Atlas and Delta boosters have the potential to be rated for human flight and modified to meet very heavy lift needs,” he said. “Should NASA choose to do so, the DoD will work with NASA to facilitate their efforts.”

Future NASA-DoD cooperation may extend beyond the EELV to other launch vehicles. Currently the Air Force and DARPA are working on a program called FALCON designed in part to develop “operationally responsive” launch capabilities. In his testimony Dickman said that NASA has played “an important part” in the program, with the Marshall Space Flight Center consulting with the Air Force Space Command on various aspects of the program. (During a presentation at last month’s Goddard Memorial Symposium, Robert Sackheim, assistant director of Marshall, said that NASA was “co-managing” the program with DARPA.)

The entrepreneur’s viewpoint

One of the nine companies selected in the first round of the FALCON program was Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), the launch vehicle startup company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk. Testifying before the committee via a video link with Los Angeles, Musk noted that some people compared the current state of the launch industry with the US automotive industry in the early 1970s, before Japanese manufacturers became a significant force on the market. That description was charitable, Musk said, because “at no point during that period did General Motors decide, as Boeing has recently done, that they would only service government customers.”

Musk did see ways that NASA and the Air Force could cooperate and help new launch vehicle ventures like his. The most significant thing they could do, he said, is “automatic cross-certification” of new launchers. “If a launch vehicle is found to be satisfactory for a DoD satellite,” he explained, “then it should be satisfactory for NASA, and vice versa.” That’s not the case now, for neither SpaceX’s own Falcon small launch vehicle nor the much larger EELVs. “We are undergoing a DoD review of our Falcon launch vehicle by Aerospace Corporation, but we’ll later have to repeat the process for NASA,” he said.

“If a launch vehicle is found to be satisfactory for a DoD satellite,” Musk said, “then it should be satisfactory for NASA, and vice versa.”

Musk also said there needs to be greater willingness by the government to support new launch ventures in their infancy by buying their first launches. While Musk praised the Air Force for being willing to be the first customer for the Falcon, he said there is a lot more NASA could do to support the industry. “We recommend… that NASA offer to buy the first or at least an early launch of a new vehicle,” he said. NASA may be leaning in that direction already, he noted, with a proposed new program called the Small Payload Launch Initiative.

Karen Poniatowski, NASA assistant associate administrator for launch services, defended the agency’s practices when questioned about it by committee chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. Citing a variety of launch vehicles, from Pegasus to Conestoga to Athena, she noted that “We indeed have a history of flying on vehicles with no flight history.” The problem is that NASA needs payloads with requirements that can tolerate the risk of flying on the first mission of a new vehicle. “Over the past few years we don’t have many requirements that have been able to tolerate that risk,” she said.

The pitfalls of cooperation

While the witnesses at the hearing were generally optimistic about the prospects for increased cooperation in space transportation, they also noted that such cooperation does pose problems. This was inadvertently made clear when, after DoD officials praised NASA’s Hyper-X hypersonic program, Steidle announced, under direct questioning by Rep. Nick Lampson, that NASA had canceled the follow-on to the X-43A, the X-43C, a joint venture with the Air Force Research Laboratory. “We will continue our hypersonics research and development,” said Ron Sega, director of Defense Research and Engineering and head of the National Aerospace Initiative, after Steidle made the announcement. “It will go at a bit slower pace and will have a bit increased risk.”

A bigger issue, Dickman said, is determining when cooperation between NASA and the Air Force makes sense. “Joint programs to field operational systems that would involve funding for multiple agencies and require design trade-offs to achieve a common configuration have proven both difficult to bring to completion and more expensive,” he said. Joint programs that have focused on specific technologies make more sense, he noted, so long as those programs don’t cross over to more military-specific activities.

“I think the greatest impediment in a long-term collaboration is that we have different requirements for the vehicles when they finally get put to use,” said Dickman.

Musk said he thought the biggest concern about any NASA-DoD cooperation was “excessive requirements accumulation”, as happened with the space shuttle. He argued that requirements should be drafted by a small group of talented, experienced personnel. “Otherwise, one may be faced with requirements that are easily addressed individually, but not combined,” he said. Recalling a classic Saturday Night Live skit, he added, “Asking that a product serve as either a floor wax or a dessert topping is fine, but not both at the same time.”

Dickman expressed similar sentiments. “I think the greatest impediment in a long-term collaboration is that we have different requirements for the vehicles when they finally get put to use,” he said.

Both NASA and the DoD technically still operate under the old 1994 space transportation policy, although a new policy is expected later this year. That policy was said to be nearly complete at the time of the Columbia accident over a year ago, but was put on the back burner until after the investigation was completed and then the new vision for NASA was hammered out. In the meantime, the scope of the policy and its contents remain a closely guarded secret. However, the needs of the exploration program may provide a new incentive for cooperative ventures regardless of current or proposed policy.

“I believe the President’s renewed commitment for discovery and exploration will encourage a more cooperative spirit between NASA and DoD,” said Rohrabacher. “As long as it is not duplicative, this new approach should work to our benefit.”