COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.–The Air Force’s top space officer is comfortable with the idea of flying military payloads on used rockets, granted they fulfill the normal military caveats for national security missions.
“They’ve proven they can do it,” Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) chief Gen. John Raymond told reporters Thursday in regards to Space Exploration and Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) successfully flying a used first stage during a communications satellite mission. “We’d make sure that we did it safely, with the oversight, we’d make sure we’d have the mission assurance part of it, but i’m pretty comfortable we’ll get comfortable with doing that.”
Air Force leadership is ready to embrace the potential of reusable rocketry for national security capabilities. Experts believe that reusable rocketry would not only reduce the cost of launch but increase the potential cadence of launches. U.S. Strategic Command chief Gen. John Hyten has said reusable rockets can play a role in preventing a Space Pearl Harbor, or a disabling attack against the United States in space.
Reusability is so important to the Pentagon that, in addition to industry pursuing its own reusability efforts, an agency has a reusability program. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) XS-1 program has a goal of launching 10 times in 10 days to demonstrate aircraft-like operability, cost efficiency and reliability. DARPA wants XS-1 flights by 2020. Agency spokesman Jared Adams said Thursday the agency expects to announce its source selection decision this month.
Raymond said the Air Force has seen its launch tempo increase. Another space officer, 14th Air Force (Air Forces Strategic) Commander Lt. Gen. David Buck, said Thursday this increase in tempo indicates that airmen are embracing the path toward reusable rockets.
“I see us making tremendous progress on that front,” Buck said at the 33rd Space Symposium here the Broadmoor hotel and resort. “I think our warfighters are embracing that mentality.”
A major step toward reusability was taken recently when the Air Force used its Autonomous Flight Safety System (AFSS) operationally for the first time on Feb. 19 with a successful SpaceX launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Legacy flight safety systems use radars and humans to serve as the termination system, to manually terminate a rocket if it veers off its flight path.
In comparison, AFSS uses either an internal navigation system or one or two Global Positioning System (GPS) units to determine if a rocket has veered off its flight path and should, accordingly, self-destruct. AFSS provides greater positive control in flight further down range with a faster response time. It also reduces reliance on aging range infrastructure while expediting range turnaround times due to stringent safety standards and fewer people on console.
AFSPC Vice Commander Maj. Gen. David Thompson told Defense Daily Thursday embracing AFSS will bring down costs through incredibly-reduced range infrastructure and reduced time for launch providers to prepare for each launch. The more rapidly the Air Force and launch providers can respond, he said, the less launches will cost.
Raymond emphasized how important the use of AFSS as a prime termination system is for progress toward reusability.
“We did a lot of work to certify that system up front, but that is going to revolutionize how we do launch operations,” Raymond said.
Though Raymond and Buck are saying the right things about Air Force progress toward reusability, bureaucracy is standing in the way. A paradigm known as “127-1” is a basic chapter of Air Force regulations that deals with safe operation of launch ranges. It mandates that there be a separate range safety office and hierarchy independent of the operational commands.
The 127-1 paradigm also requires anything launched on the range to be under the positive identification and control at all times and that thrust termination can be commanded at any time. While 127-1 has been successful at protecting the public, 127-1 reduces the ability of the Air Force to rapidly launch rockets as it requires humans in-the-loop. The Air Force was unable to return a request for comment Thursday as to whether it is considering modifying 127-1 to reduce its insistence on humans-in-the-loop (Defense Daily, Nov. 4).