The Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) missile defense system program, which President Obama proposes to eliminate, will be wound down in a way that will permit it to be restarted later, if needed, a defense contractor said.

Dropping KEI is a mistake, because the United States needs systems that annihilate enemy missiles shortly after they launch, when they are most easily spotted, before they can emit multiple warheads or decoys, and early enough in their flight that other missile defense systems also can attempt to take them down, according to some observers. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, May 18, 2009.)

Responding to a question from Space & Missile Defense Report as to what will happen if the Department of Defense discovers that it needs KEI after all to meet a rapidly emerging, unexpected enemy missile capability, Dave Thompson, chairman and CEO of Orbital Sciences Corp. [ORB], said that possibility has been anticipated.

At the request of the Missile Defense Agency, contractors are winding down the program in a way that will make a later restart easier, he said, speaking before a luncheon of the Washington Space Business Roundtable at the University Club.

“If the need were to arise three-four-five years down the road to re-activate that program,” the current wind-down of KEI will ensure that a restart “could be done in the most efficient and expeditious way possible,” Thompson said.

For the near term, however, he said it is clear that the KEI program will be abolished, unless Congress decides otherwise. “We’re very sorry to see that happen,” Thompson said.

Rather, the Obama budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010, places most emphasis on U.S. missile defense systems that take down enemy missiles in their midcourse of flight, or in their terminal phase as the enemy weapon dives down toward its target. Also, the Obama budget prepared by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will focus on developing a system to hit enemy missiles in their ascent phase, using something similar to existing interceptors, Thompson said.

But KEI, led by Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] and aided by Orbital, Raytheon Co. [RTN] and Alliant Techsystems Inc. [ATK], and its very rapid acceleration may be needed after all in coming years, he said.

If so, the program could be revived. “That could be refreshed if needed in the future,” he said.

Later, in an interview, Thompson said that the wind-down of the KEI program will be executed well, to “shut down in the smartest way.”

For example, if some segment of the development program is almost complete, it would make sense to finish it, rather than to leave it undone, he explained.

That way, if a decision is made later to restart the KEI program, it would “start from the strongest position,” he said.

On other points, Thompson said:

  • The new Orbital Minotaur IV rocket is set to launch this summer at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. It can move a payload such as a relatively lightweight satellite to orbit, or even to escape velocity.
  • Think a Corvette has acceleration? Try this. If a problem such as an explosion occurs on the giant Ares I rocket that will take the future Orion space capsule and its crew to orbit, then an abort system rocket would ignite to blast the capsule up and away from the Ares I lifter. If that abort system rocket ignites, it can hurl Orion — and the astronauts inside it — from zero to 850 mph in 2.5 seconds, Thompson noted. “You will be a little bit sore the next day, but you’ll be alive,” he said. The abort system rocket from Aerojet is supplied by Orbital to Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT], the prime contractor for Orion.
  • The Taurus II launcher using Wallops Island, Va., will be able to take six metric tons of cargo to supply the International Space Station for NASA, after the existing space shuttle fleet is forced into retirement next year.
  • While Obama would cut or kill some missile defense programs, the president wants more testing of many missile defense programs, and that will be good for Orbital, which makes target missiles.
  • Orbital has figured out how to make a satellite with about 5 kiloWatts of power perform as though it has 6 kW.