Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Delayed Response

There are a lot of people in the Pentagon and Congress who are excited about the concept of “Operationally Responsive Space.” There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what this new cliché encompasses, but my understanding of the subject is something like this: it begins with a warfighter on the ground who needs a space asset to perform his mission. Within a short period of time (we’re talking days, not months,) a satellite can be pulled from storage and launched in support of ongoing combat operations.

I have some very strong feelings on the subject. Perhaps my strongest assertion is that ORS will never be achieved unless the Air Force as a whole streamlines its bureaucracy in the name of responsive space. How can you have responsive space access when dealing with the mountains of paperwork that are required just to get somebody to provide you with a mission control facility, or if it takes four months to award a contract for an essential spacecraft component? I think the AF is counting on going through “business as usual” to create a stockpile of responsive-space satellites which will then be launched on demand. But from a developmental standpoint, the “business as usual” approach will continue to delay important R&D programs that are necessary for validating responsive space concepts.

Another long pole in the tent is the launcher that will provide responsive access to space. As it stands, the closest thing we have to a responsive launch vehicle is a Minotaur I. We still have a long way to go before responsive launch is within reach. The problem is that we keep on thinking that a “responsive space launcher” should work like a traditional launch vehicle, when it should work like an ICBM. Think about it for a second: these ICBM’s sat in their silos on the alert for years, ready to nuke the Commies if the cold war ever went hot. We still need a launcher that can sit in storage for years and launch at a moment’s notice. The silo concept is still applicable, because it makes integrating the payload with the rocket a bit easier (since the payload need never be raised above the ground level, while the rocket is already inside the silo.)

Some have suggested that Michael Griffin should sell out to ORS in order to get his beloved Stick (Ares I) funded. That’s not such a bad idea. The Shuttle SRB, and its 5-segment derivative, are worthy of consideration as ORS launchers. They would require a solid (or storable liquid) upper stage, instead of the cryogenic liquid one proposed for Ares I. They’d likely be oversized for the mission, but perhaps ATK could figure out a way of cutting an SRB down to 2 or 3 segments for an ORS booster. As long as he can find a way to marry Ares I with the responsive space launch concept, there’s a chance that Michael Griffin can solve the Ares I funding shortfalls.