With no breakthroughs in space propulsion or rocket design likely in the near future, a new family of launch vehicles developed for military payloads should satisfy all projected national security needs through 2020, according to a panel convened to examine the program.
However, the federal government likely will be the sole user of these launch vehicles and therefore will need to pay remaining life-cycle costs, according to the final report of the National Security Space Launch Requirements Panel. The Rand Corp. National Defense Research Institute provided analytical support to the panel which began its work in May 2005.
The two families of rockets developed under the U.S. Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program -- Lockheed Martin's Atlas 5 family and Boeing's Delta 4 family -- are maturing into reliable, state-of-the-art space transportation systems, according to the panel's report.
However, the eight-member panel found the systems are not likely to attract the commercial payloads that were expected to help support the systems. This lack of commercial payloads means that the federal government has become the primary user of these space-launch vehicles and must be prepared to pay for and manage the full cost of maintaining the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, according to the panel's report.
"The EELV development programs are true successes and are critical to national security," the panel said. "The Air Force must rigorously protect this capability with resources adequate to sustain these programs. Any additional launch developments must be supported with funding separate from EELV... The Air Force must fund EELV launch and range infrastructure sufficient to implement planned acquisition strategies."
Consistent with the objectives of the U.S. National Space Transportation Policy, the panel says that NASA should continue to be encouraged to use the EELV program to launch its space science and post-Space Shuttle resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS).
"The EELV program would benefit from increased government usage," the panel said. "NASA and [the Department of Defense] should rigorously apply the [National Space Transportation Policy] with a going-in goal of utilizing EELV for NASA ISS resupply and science missions."
The panel also supported government efforts to make the vehicles more competitive on the commercial market. "The EELV program would benefit from increased commercial launches. The U.S. government should address measures that will aid the EELV to compete in the price-driven commercial launch marketplace."
Boeing and Lockheed Martin are awaiting U.S. government approval to merge the respective launch operations into a joint venture, dubbed the United Launch Alliance (ULA), intended to help the companies better manage costs. The panel recommended that the government also provide support to help better manage the programs going forward.
"The EELV program represents a major management challenge--with or without the advent of ULA," the panel said. "The next few years are critical in gathering the required data on which to base an objective decision regarding the 'path ahead' for this critical national resource.... The Air Force should identify the extraordinary management actions and senior review processes required to execute the planned EELV program strategy, and then ensure that the leadership and properly skilled technical and program management personnel to direct the program are in place. This may involve placing U.S. government personnel within the respective EELV companies (and ULA, as appropriate) to gather the necessary data and insight."
While the vehicles in their current state are satisfactory to meet the U.S. government's launch needs, technical issues still remain to be solved, including the potential development of a heavy-lift variant, evaluating Atlas 5's reliance on the Russian-built RD-180 engine and both vehicles use of the same upper stage, which means a failure of the upper stage on either vehicle would ground both rockets.
"The U.S. government should develop criteria to be applied in soliciting and potentially selecting EELV alternative vehicles," the panel said. "These criteria should be made available to prospective suppliers so as to manage expectations and eliminate perceptions of U.S. government endorsement where none was intended."
The panel also supports allowing new commercial launch providers to compete to be an alternative to the EELV. However, no clear public policies currently are in place to facilitate such competition.
Both Congress and the U.S. Air Force have expressed interest in developing a more responsive launch model, known as Operational Responsive Space. For small payloads and very short launch notices, such a new launch architecture would supplement the current "launch on schedule" EELV's program with one that would "launch on demand" to meet the largely unplanned needs of the U.S. military.