Reusability is the key for the next national security space revolution

Reusability is the key for the next national security space revolution
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The United States’ military dominance is based on our leadership in space. Nearly every aspect of our nation’s military relies on space-based capabilities in one form or another — from command and control and early warning satellites, through to secure communications and advanced imagery for intelligence. Maintaining that dominance requires continued investment in our national security space architecture and the adoption of new and innovative technologies. These technologies are, however, emerging at a rate that exceeds our ability to fully grasp their implications or adapt our way of thinking to their capabilities.

Global positioning allowed the military to pinpoint targets with extreme accuracy, but it now allows Ubers and Lyfts to deliver us to our destination. The same timing signals that GPS uses ensures that the global economy hums along to the same temporal tune. The point is, technology opens up new capabilities and services that we had not considered when they first appeared.

Today this is the case with reusable rockets, something that was once a pipe dream and, according to many, wholly impossible. Not too long ago many thought that recovering a rocket booster was beyond the limits of physics and engineering. It couldn’t be done, until it was. As of April of 2018, SpaceX successfully flew 11 “flight-proven” or used Falcon 9 boosters. Think about that — they launched a rocket, delivered a payload, landed on Earth, were inspected and serviced, refueled and flown again. That is a staggering achievement.

What does that mean for the aforementioned leadership in space? A lot, actually. SpaceX and others are dramatically reducing the cost of accessing space. By not throwing the booster away after one use, reusing rockets saves on material, time, parts, and labor. This means launches are cheaper and deliver better value for the taxpayer.  

Equally as important is the simple fact that reusable rockets are, by design, more robust than their expendable counterparts. This is not to say that expendable rockets are cheaply made. Rather, reusable rockets are meant to be flown repeatedly and, therefore, need a level of redundancy and survivability that aren’t required of one-and-done rockets. Reusable rockets are simply more resilient by design.

Reusability also generates incredible data for future launches. First flights are often test flights for expendable rockets and are inherently riskier. Engineers are able to inspect a reusable rocket after it landed to identify any issues seen during launch, thereby improving future performance — something you just can’t do with an expendable rocket.

Cheaper launches means more frequent launches, and, ultimately more productive launches due to less expensive satellites. It used to be the case that you took a very expensive rocket to put a very large, very expensive satellite into orbit. Why? Since the cost of launch was so high, engineers needed to maximize the number of tools and sensors into one platform. As a consequence, those few satellites became, and remain, in the words of General John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, “juicy targets”.

But, what if by using reusable rockets the United States launches a dozen or two dozen more satellites into different orbits? What if, rather than placing all our space eggs in one basket we had multiple baskets with multiple missions? Could Beijing or Moscow still attack our assets? Certainly. But, instead of being an existential threat to our space-based capabilities, it would merely be an inconvenience. They took out five of our assets? Well, we have 50 more.

Today, with reusable rockets, the United States can launch more frequently, at reduced cost, meaning more payloads can enter orbit. That single satellite’s capabilities can be distributed across ten or 20 satellites, themselves at reduced cost thanks to miniaturization and advanced electronics.

That disaggregation of payloads and distribution of capabilities is absolutely critical to our national defense. In a conflict you can be sure that China, Russia, or any adversary will aim at those “juicy targets” first. In April the Secure World Foundation and the Center for Strategic & International Studies separately released reports on international counter-space capabilities and assets. It makes for a sobering read. Our adversaries know our strengths and are aiming to develop effective countermeasures.

To be sure, adopting reusable rockets for national security payloads requires vetting, regulatory reforms, along with a change in the Air Force’s and Intelligence Community’s cultural mindset. It is also part of a broader suite of capabilities the U.S. should adopt including small launch and traditional launch that will strengthen our overall posture.

That said, last year General John Raymond, the commander of Air Force Space Command, said of reusability, “I am completely committed to launching on a reused rocket, a previously flown rocket, and making sure that we have the processes in place to be able to make sure that we can do that safely.” The dividends for doing so are, however, substantial.

Reusing rockets and the impact it potentially has on national security space is significant and it is something in which we should invest. Lower launch costs, diversified capabilities, and rapid response to urgent crises enhances our national security, increases deterrence, and will deliver better effects for our warfighters on the ground.

Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersPentagon’s No. 2 official: Trump’s ‘Space Force’ could cost 'billions' Ex-astronaut: Trump's plan for a Space Force 'redundant,' 'wasteful' Pence announces first steps in establishing 'Space Force' MORE is a former U.S. congressman who represented Michigan’s 8th District. He served as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 2011 to 2015. He is the founder of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs.