Science

After 25 years, military told to move from “expendable” to “reusable” rockets

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Enlarge / Congress has recognized the promise of reusable rockets.
SpaceX

Less than a year and a half has passed since SpaceX first flew a used first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket, but this achievement has already shaken up the glacial process of lawmaking and military budgeting. The final version of the defense budget bill for fiscal year 2019 will make both a symbolic and a significant policy change when it comes to reusable rockets.

The conference report from the US House and Senate calls for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program of the Department of Defense, commonly known as the EELV program, to be named the “National Security Space Launch program” as of March 1, 2019. No longer will the military rely solely on expendable rockets.

Moreover, the report says the US Air Force must consider both expendable and reusable launch vehicles as part of its solicitation for military launch contracts. And in the event that a contract is solicited for a mission that a reusable launch vehicle is not eligible to compete for, the Air Force should report back to Congress with the reason why. The US House has already agreed to the conference report, and it should be taken up in the Senate next week. After that, it will need the president’s signature to become law.

EELV history

The new policy marks a significant change in a program that dates back about a quarter-century.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the US military relied largely on modified intercontinental ballistic missiles—the precursors to Lockheed Martin’s modern-day line of Atlas rockets and Boeing’s Delta vehicles—to get its satellites into space. At the direction of the White House in the late 1970s, the Air Force worked with NASA and its Space Shuttle program to fulfill the military’s launch needs. The shuttle’s first Department of Defense flight launched in June of 1982 on just the program’s fourth flight, but the Challenger accident in 1986 would ultimately end the relationship.

Under the Reagan administration’s National Space Launch Strategy, the military was told to develop multiple ways to get into space, and this led to the concept of the EELV program in 1994. The Air Force’s then-vice chief of staff, Thomas Moorman, urged Lockheed and Boeing to “evolve” the Atlas and Delta fleets by improving their reliability and lowering their cost. Before the end of the 1990s, the Air Force awarded Lockheed and Boeing $3 billion for this modernization effort.

The companies had hoped that they could compete for the emerging and lucrative geostationary satellite launch market with their new rockets, but the Atlas and Delta rockets were more expensive than Russian and European boosters available at the time. So Boeing and Lockheed were left with only the US national security market. Both companies began to consider whether they should continue flying if they would only have a split share of the military market.

To ensure its access to space, the Department of Defense brokered a deal in which Lockheed and Boeing would merge their rocket building ventures into one company, United Launch Alliance (ULA). Each parent retained a 50-percent stake in the new firm, which would be required to maintain both the Atlas and Delta fleets of vehicles. The military had redundant access to space, and the big aerospace companies, Lockheed and Boeing, had a monopoly.

Rise of reusability

Elon Musk and his new SpaceX company were not happy and sued to stop this merger in 2005. It didn’t work. Undeterred, SpaceX went off and developed the Falcon 1 rocket and then won a NASA contract to finalize the Falcon 9 rocket and deliver cargo to the International Space Station. With this powerful new rocket, SpaceX wanted to compete with United Launch Alliance for these national security launch contracts.

SpaceX sued again four years ago, filing a suit against the US government’s sole-source award of launch contracts to ULA. SpaceX sought the right to compete for those launches, and this time the lawsuit worked. The Falcon 9 rocket would become certified by the Air Force to compete for some national security launches.

In December 2015, SpaceX successfully landed a first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket for the first time. Then, in March 2017, it flew one of these used rockets for the first time and has since flown a used first stage booster 14 times. Earlier this year, it flew the Falcon Heavy rocket. The significance of this larger rocket, powered in part by reused Falcon 9 cores, is that it can hit all nine of the Department of Defense’s reference orbits for missions. This effectively means that there are now no military missions that a “reusable rocket” cannot reach.

The US Congress appears to have noticed these significant achievements. As part of the conference report, Congress directs the Air Force to report back on how the military will ensure the used rockets are safe to use and how much money the government will save as a result. It is quite a change from the state of play just 13 years ago, when ULA was dominant and SpaceX was roundly dismissed by the courts and the broader aerospace community.

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