The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

 
VentureStar
RLV program failes like VentureStar mean that any future vehicle developers won’t be able to rely on NASA and the DoD for funding, but can hope for the government to provide investment incentives. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

Earth-to-orbit transport: the missing ingredient in Bush’s space policy recipe

One assumption which everyone in the space community has been making is that the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) which NASA plans to use for future human spaceflight will be placed into low Earth orbit by a heavy-lift version of either the Atlas 5 or the Delta 4 EELVs. This, in turn, implies the end of NASA’s efforts to develop and build a reusable launch vehicle (RLV). One sign of this is the stream consistently negative comments on the RLV concept from Administrator Sean O’Keefe.

This may be a case of sour grapes, since NASA has so often failed to come up with a realistic plan for developing an RLV. Indeed, the only modestly successful test vehicle that the US government has built so far is the DC-X, which flew in 1993-1995. It was first financed by the missile defense people and only later picked up by NASA. Whether this failure was due to the NASA’s overwhelming commitment to the shuttle or for other reasons is irrelevant. They failed, and they have given up trying.

If one considers everything that gets shoehorned into their budget, it is obvious that something had to be abandoned if the agency was to pursue any sort of serious exploration agenda. This still leaves the problem of getting from Earth to orbit. While in the long run, the Pentagon has an interest in lowering the costs of access to space, right now, and for the next few years, they have an even greater interest in seeing as many non-DoD payloads as possible flying on the EELVs.

Does this mean the US government is giving up on RLVs? Probably not, though it does mean that the nascent RLV industry will have to give up any hope that NASA will pay their development costs.

A CEV development program that launched between one and three development vehicles a year between 2008 and 2014 would be a godsend to the Air Force, which has found itself having to pay a substantial premium to keep both Boeing and Lockheed Martin in business. This problem is reflected in the fact that the Air Force is planning to pay $611 million dollar in fiscal year 2005 for three launches, compared to $604 million in 2004, which bought them four Atlas 5s and Delta 4s. Other elements of Bush’s exploration program will also probably be geared more toward using EELV’s rather than the Delta 2, which has been NASA’s science mission workhorse launcher for more than a decade.

Does this mean the US government is giving up on RLVs? Probably not, though it does mean that the nascent RLV industry will have to give up any hope that NASA will pay their development costs. The Pentagon retains a strong interest in RLVs, though not for the near term. Their recent $7.7 million dollar investment in the Waverider hypersonic scramjet experiment, scheduled for 2007, shows that interest in this field is still alive. However, a long-term credible road map for RLV development has yet to emerge.

Traditionally, the pattern is for Air Force to dedicate each decade to replacing one major element of its aircraft inventory. In the 1970s, it was fighters, with the introduction of the very successful F-15 and F-16. In the 1980s, it was bombers, with the B-1B and the B-2, and in the 1990s, it was transports, with the C-17 and the C-130J. In this decade, they are introducing the F/A-22 and the F-35 JSF. Ten years from now, it is logical to assume that Air Force planners hope to be working on something that will eventually replace the B-52 and the B-1s.

A “space bomber” that could go into orbit and deliver a small precision-guided payload to any target on earth within 90 minutes is an attractive concept, but it would never substitute for the large capacity of a B-52. Therefore, tens of billions of Pentagon dollars could never be allocated for a purely military RLV development program. The Defense Department will try and keep some research and may eventually finance the development of a small reusable satellite launcher, but there will not be any major development funds coming from the defense budget.

The US government cannot simply walk away from the substantial investment it has already made in this technology. Within the next twenty or thirty years, a workable RLV is almost certainly going to emerge and it is in the national interest of the United States that it be American. If neither NASA nor the USAF is going to fund such a vehicle, that leaves the private sector. It is, therefore, only logical for the government to devise unconventional ways to support the US RLV industry.

Tax credits for RLV development, such as the proposed Calvert-Ortiz bill which, if adopted, would provide $4.6 billion over ten years to the industry, or some variant of Dana Rohrabacher’s Zero-G Zero-Tax idea, would be most useful. Loan guarantees, such as those proposed under the ill-fated Breaux bill of 1999, probably cannot do any better now than they did back then. What might also help would be sort of binding promise from NASA to buy a certain number of rides to the ISS or to elsewhere in LEO for US astronauts.

The administration and Congress have got to find a way to send supportive signals, while making sure everyone understands that there will not be any money for research and development.

A predictable regulatory environment is also essential for there to be a successful low-cost space launch business. Proper regulations will, over time, allow RLV operators to buy insurance at reasonable rates. Until then, the government may want to consider becoming the insurer of last resort.

Nurturing a new branch of the aerospace industry without any direct support from the Federal government is going to be quite a challenge. Serious investors like to see an imprimatur from either NASA or the DoD before they write a check. The administration and Congress have got to find a way to send supportive signals, while making sure everyone understands that there will not be any money for research and development.

Under Congressional rules the cost of tax credits is treated as if they were real money being spent; however, the revenue forgone by the US government would be negligible compared to what the nation would gain. The tax code is full of credits for things like racehorses. Redirecting some of those investment dollars into RLVs would pay off in terms of future American space power. Not even the most fleet-footed thoroughbred can provide that.


Home