NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.–The outgoing chief of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) sees a role for reusable rockets in preventing what he calls a Space Pearl Harbor, or a disabling attack against the United States in space.
“Wherever the commercial market goes, we need to be a partner,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten told Defense Daily Sept. 21 here at the Air Force Association’s (AFA) annual convention. “If the commercial market flourishes in any area, we have to be right in line, we can’t be separate from wherever the commercial market takes us. We like to think that sometimes we can be separate from that structure, but that’s the industry, we have to be tied to industry.”
Hyten, as far back as 2002 when he was a colonel, has warned of Space Pearl Harbor. In a 2002 essay, Hyten cited how growing commercial and national security use of space, U.S. assets in space and on the ground offer many potentially vulnerable targets. So much of both civilian society and the military are dependent on space assets that experts say space is the next frontier for warfare. But the issue seems to have generated little traction publicly beyond warnings.
Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space LLC, has touted rapidly reusable launch vehicles as a solution to the Space Pearl Harbor dilemma. Miller said Friday a rapidly reusable launch vehicle, which he calls his Ultra Low Cost Access To Space (ULCATS) solution, could serve both as a deterrent and in a practical sense by quickly launching new satellites if a U.S. spacecraft is destroyed.
With the trend going toward smaller satellites both due to declining budgets and that a giant, billion-dollar national security satellite is a juicy target for enemy attack, Miller believes rapidly reusable rockets would quickly and affordably redeliver smaller satellites in storage.
“If we can quickly and cheaply replace them, why do it in the first place,” Miller said. “You won’t attack because you get no benefits.”
In addition, Miller said rapidly reusable rockets could help replenish DoD’s most sensitive satellites located in geostationary earth orbit (GEO), including spy and missile warning satellites. Though the reusable rockets wouldn’t go to GEO, Miller said DoD and industry could build a space “tug” in low-earth orbit (LEO) that would serve as meeting point. The reusable rocket would deliver a satellite to the tug, and then tug would help deliver the satellite to its orbital destination.
A pair of companies in Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Blue Origin are making progress on reusable rockets. SpaceX has already landed a number of its first stages and will perform its first launch mission on a used first stage between October and December. As part of his Mars presentation in Mexico, SpaceX founder Elon Musk showed a video that envisioned a first stage landing, new propellant and payload immediately placed on the rocket from the launch pad, then immediately launching the landed rocket back into space.
Blue Origin has also reused rockets but the company is using them for suborbital company test missions. Blue Origin is also developing a pair of military launch-class rockets that the company plans to be reusable larger than both SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Delta IV Heavy.
Hyten was confirmed Wednesday evening as the next chief of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), replacing Adm. Cecil Haney. A STRATCOM spokesman said Friday the first week of November was targeted for a change-of-command ceremony. Air Force Gen. John Raymond replaces Hyten as chief of AFSPC.