Spacelift Washington: Military RLV Needs May Stimulate Commercial Prospects

By frank_sietzen
February 17, 2002
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Spacelift Washington

Spacelift Washington Archive

The joint USAF/NASA One Team 120-day study winds down this month at the same time NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe appears to be moving to link DoD RLV interest with the space agency’s existing SLI 2nd generation studies, a desire O’Keefe has repeatedly mentioned in public as his leadership of the nation’s civil space agenda begins. But while the One Team effort has attempted to identify commonality between military and NASA use of a fully reusable launcher, it is the high mission rates and rapid turnaround needs of use of an RLV as part of the Defense Department’s global strike needs that may have the most impact on whether a new RLV could be adapted for commercial use from its inception.

The military’s objective in development of a fully reusable launch vehicle -also referred to as a spaceplane -include rapid launch capability within 12-48 hours of the order for launch, and a capability for as many as 20 flights in a two-to-three week time frame when a national situation requires. NASA’s own mission models for a 2nd gen RLV contain no such requirement. Operators of a commercial RLV that includes carrying human passengers – possible space tourists of the next decade -will find a high volume flight rate and minimal ground processing time essential for any type of commercial passenger service. It also remains to be seen, however, if passengers will be willing to fly on a remotely controlled, unpiloted vehicle -or would require an RLV configuration including an on-board crew. Military spaceplane work has focused more on an unpiloted configuration, while NASA aims at replacing the shuttle with a crewed design.

Whatever direction the One Team study points to, industry has been challenged by the USAF/NASA team leaders to define the ability of the nation’s space launch industry to actually develop a new RLV either along the existing SLI timetables- flight operations leading to operability in the next decade- or an accelerated schedule.

Among the questions posed to industry following the January 17th industry day at Los Angeles Air Force Base are these:

  • What are the technology areas that need the most attention to create a reusable launcher that performs along airline-like operational logistics?

  • What suite of existing RLV technologies does industry believe are now “state of the art”?

  • What is the earliest industry launch designers believe a next-gen fully reusable launch vehicle could be deployed to meet existing USAF or NASA mission models, and what would be the top 10 issues associated with such a development?

  • What changes in technology would be needed to deploy an RLV in the 2012-time frame?

  • What would be the value of using a technology flight demonstrator to lead to an operable vehicle?

  • Would a fly-off between competing designs be appropriate?

  • What is industry’s take on the relative commonality between USAF and NASA RLV requirements?

  • Can the existing U.S. industrial base support the development of a next-gen RLV while maintaining existing expendable vehicle development, production, and commercial competition?

  • How much commonality could there be between UAV payloads and a military spaceplane/RLV?

Currently, development of a new reusable launcher is contained in the NASA Space Launch Initiative program (SLI). The Marshall Spaceflight Center-led team is addressing issues such as lightweight structures, long-life rocket engines, advanced crew systems, life support technology, robotics, advanced flight control technologies, avionics, and new heat shield systems. The program’s directives include “great importance placed on promoting space launch opportunities for both government and private sectorsÉmeeting NASA’s missions while “improving U.S. competitiveness in the space launch industry and enabling DoD missions to the greatest extent possible. ..”

The plan provides for the following primary and secondary objectives in the development of a next-gen RLV:


  • Support ISS logistics

  • Payloads to LEO destinations and other orbits


  • Support assembly and checkout of space platforms and modules

  • Service and re-boost spacecraft and other orbital assets

  • Retrieve orbital assets for repair and return to Earth

  • De-orbit space debris and inactive spacecraft


  • Crew rescue

  • Support polar orbit crewed missions

  • Support human exploration vehicle delivery onorbit

Commercial mission needs were considered proprietary to the participants. O’Keefe may be interested in accelerating development of the RLV while national security space needs get greater attention from the Rumsfeld administration at DoD, and while post-September 11th military budgets rise to sustain a greater role by DoD in RLV design and deployment. No dollar amounts have been discussed publicly for DoD funding targets for its role in an accelerated RLV program, or should the USAF and NASA move towards establishing a more traditional joint program office.

O’Keefe has said that the Clinton administration policy wherein reusable vehicle primacy was lead by NASA, and expendable vehicle development led by DoD was “in need of a complete review-a lot has changed since that policy was created.” Currently, NASA plans to spend no more than $4.8 billion in the SLI 2nd gen RLV effort. Some industry skeptics suggest that the true cost of a fully reusable 2-stage launcher than would be capable of replacing the space shuttle in payload capability and onorbit operations is more in the range of $10-20 billion.

In our next column:

The Path to the EELV: A Special 3-part backgrounder on the creation of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Part One: First was the CELV

Related Links

  • 26 January 2002: Spacelift Washington: USAF planning additional EELV funding, SpaceRef

  • 24 January 2002: NASA/USAF One Team Industry Review Day (One Team description and downloadable meeting presentations)

  • 17 January 2002: NASA/USAF One Team Questions for Industry, USAF SMC

  • 17 January 2002: The Military Space Plane: Providing Transformational and Responsive Global Precision Striking Power, USAF SMC

  • 4 September 2001: 2nd Generation Reusable Launch Vehicle Program: Level 1 Requirements, NASA MSFC

    The information contained herein are the authors own and are not affiliated with any other society, organization, or institution. Publication does not constitute endorsement of either editorial content or sponsoring web site. Have information about space transportation? Email the editor at sietzen@erols.com