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Space Access: New and Emerging U.S. Capabilities

The United States has the distinction of being the first country to use space for military purposes, launching both photoreconnaissance (CORONA) and electronic surveillance (GRAB/TATTLETALE) satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) in mid-1960. Since that time, no nation has made more effective use of near-Earth space for national security purposes. Much of America’s early military/intelligence space capabilities were based upon a variety of launch vehicles built around Cold War-era military ballistic missiles, which themselves traced a common lineage back to the World War II German V-2.

Since the 1970s, however, the boosters available for U.S. military launches have been limited due to a planned transition of all payloads launched to LEO to the reusable Space Transportation System (STS), better known as the space shuttle. STS never really worked as a general-purpose launch vehicle due to problems with cost, safety, and launch frequency, and is scheduled to be retired in 2011. In addition, the legacy expendable launch systems had their own vices, ranging from high cost-per-launch to excessive preparation times on the launch pad.

Over the past decade, however, U.S. companies, in partnership with the military, have made solid steps in terms of resolving the legacy problems of LEO access, including:

Multipurpose NanoMissile System (NMS) – For decades, military space

A U.S. Air Force Atlas V rocket stands on Space Launch Complex-3 during its mobile servicing tower rollback at Vandenberg Air Force Base (AFB), Calif., March 12, 2008. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Luke P. Thelen

professionals have dreamed of a booster system that would overcome the tyrannies of ballistic missile-based launcher designs. In particular, with the rise of small, networked payloads, called “NanoSatellites,” the desirability of a small, low-cost LEO-capable booster has become a national priority. The solution appears to be an Army-designed booster system called “NanoRocket,” which uses technology from the ATACMS/MLRS guided missile/rocket systems, along with an innovative benign bipropellant ethane/nitrous-oxide propulsion plant. NanoMissile comes in four configurations, all of which can be used as suborbital sounding rockets. The 4-stage version, costing less than $1 million, can launch payloads up to 23 kilograms/50.6 pounds into a 250 mile circular orbit at up to a 43 degree inclination. Just 12 feet tall and 2 feet in diameter, NanoMissile is small enough to be forward-based with ground commanders, or aboard ships.

X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) – A low-cost, reusable orbital delivery/retrieval vehicle with good crossrange recovery performance and rapid turnaround between launches has always been a desire of the U.S. military. STS was far too large and complex to fulfill these desires, or to ever provide a good cost-per-pound to LEO. But NASA and the Air Force appear to have finally found the right mix of qualities in the X-37B OTV. The size of a jet trainer, the X-37B is launched into LEO by an Atlas V 501 booster. Then, using high-efficiency solar cells for power, the X-37B can conduct orbital operations for up to 270 days, with cargo contained in a 7 foot long by 4 foot diameter payload bay. When it returns, the X-37B does so automatically at Mach 25, gliding to a landing at Vandenberg AFB in California. The 2010 flight of the X-37B was extremely successful, and a second mission is planned for March 2011.

Delta IV/Atlas V – There are a number of space-based systems, particularly optical and radar photoreconnaissance, mapping, and electronic intelligence collection systems with large antenna systems, which still require large, heavy-lift boosters. With the retirement of STS and the legacy Titan IV, this job has fallen on a pair of booster systems developed under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Though named after legacy booster systems from the Cold War, both EELV launcher systems – the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V and the Boeing/ULA Delta IV – make use of advanced technology rocket engines developed since the end of the Cold War. Both provide the capability to deliver 20- to 25-ton payloads to LEO, as well as smaller loads into geosynchronous orbits and deep space. There also is a plan to man-rate Delta IV to carry manned payloads. Both EELVs have proven very reliable, and Delta IV in particular has proven popular for heavy, outsized payloads like those launched for the National Reconnaissance Office.

These developments have, for the first time in decades, provided U.S. military space planners and developers with real options to get their payloads into orbit, at lower cost, in shorter launch cycle times, and with greater reliability. Even better, however, are the new launcher basing and on-orbit operational options, which should give American military space capabilities strong growth potential in future years.


John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...