Congress takes smart steps to make space launch reusability the norm

Congress takes smart steps to make space launch reusability the norm
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The president’s announcement that he was directing the Pentagon to begin work to establish a sixth military branch, or “Space Force”, certainly caught a lot of attention in the press and media. While interesting and certainly worthy of comment, Congress quietly continued work on the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), provisions in which could greatly affect the trajectory of the national security space architecture. One component of this is in the world of launch.

The NDAA takes aggressive steps forward on embracing reusability — this is to be welcomed. Under Section 1605 of the current draft, the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program is renamed the “National Security Space Launch Program”. This is a step forward in recognizing that reusability can and should be part of our nation’s launch portfolio, but the key developments follow next.

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That same section also outlines a requirement that the Secretary of Defense pursue a strategy that includes reusability — partial or fully reusable rockets — in national security launches; mandates the continuation of certification processes to validate the use of these components; and requires justification for why a national security launch contract awards excludes reusable rockets.

 

Reusability was once a pipe dream, the stuff of science fiction. Indeed, if you watch old science fiction movies, the rockets landed on the surface of an alien planet and departed once the mission was complete. Many said that reusability was impossible from an engineering standpoint, until it wasn’t anymore.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is making reusability the norm for launch. Indeed, it is almost more of a story when a Falcon 9 first stage isn’t recovered. On Friday, SpaceX launched Commercial Resupply Mission 15 (CRS-15) for NASA. Both the Falcon 9 and the Dragon capsule were flight proven — meaning flown and recovered successfully.

The latest iteration of the Falcon 9, the Block 5, is designed to fly at least 10 times. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is making great strides forward with its New Shepherd rocket and is expected to fly the New Glenn rocket — also recoverable — within the next few years. The New Glenn is also designed to fly multiple times.

Embracing reusability is a step toward to achieving a near highway to space — regular flights to low earth orbit and more frequent launches to higher orbits. Achieving this launch frequency will drive down the cost of putting payloads into orbit and offer greater flexibility to the national security space architecture.

That highway will offer unparalleled opportunities for the national security space architecture — a flexibility and responsiveness that the United States does not enjoy today. While the pace of launch has quickened in recent years, it still follows a fairly typical cadence. When combined with small launch and traditional expendable vehicles, reusability will make launching payloads to orbit commonplace.

The NDAA language is a good first step, but a critical second step is getting the U.S. Air Force comfortable with reusability in a spaceflight context. The Air Force reuses planes every day — they don’t throw away a F-22 after one flight. Rather, each airframe has a standard set of maintenance checks that ensure that it is flight ready.

This same level of comfort and familiarity is needed with reusable rockets. This will happen over time, but it doesn’t need to take as long as it is right now. NASA has already embraced reusability. Just look at Friday’s CRS-15 mission. SpaceX and Blue Origin are generating reams of data that cover nearly every imaginable performance metric after every launch. The Air Force needs to work more closely with these companies and the Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) to evaluate and validate this information.

This is one area where the Air Force can truly go fast. It is not a question of cutting corners or moving recklessly. Rather, it is a question of changing the culture of the Air Force and the FFRDCs themselves to focus on outcomes over process. The existing model of certification is based on 100 percent, or near-100 percent, mission assurance and is based off of a launch tempo that is slow, infrequent, and assumes a benign operating environment. That’s changing. The launch cadence is increasing, the turnaround time between launches is accelerating, and the competition in space is growing.  

Whatever shape the Space Force takes, getting launch right will position the United States for continued leadership in and dominance of space. As Congress gets set to start the conference committee on the NDAA, they should keep this language in the final version of the legislation and continue to encourage the Air Force to move fast in space.

Our competitors in China and Russia certainly are, and we can’t afford to continue business as usual.

Joshua C. Huminski is the director of the National Security Space Program and the Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersCongress takes smart steps to make space launch reusability the norm Authoritarian threats to American democracy demand urgent action Overnight Defense: VA pick breezes through confirmation hearing | House votes to move on defense bill negotiations | Senate bill would set 'stringent' oversight on North Korea talks MORE Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.