Launch Priority: Missile Warning Has To Come First

I was feeling pretty good about authoring the lead opinion piece in Space News this week concerning why a manned landing on Mars must become the goal of NASA’s human spaceflight program. The title of the essay was “Mars is the Only Destination That Matters,” because in my view a mission to the red planet is the sole project that can justify the kind of spending a robust human spaceflight program will require.

But then I read Turner Brinton’s front-page story in the same issue of Space News disclosing that the Spring launch of a much-needed new missile warning satellite may interfere with plans to get NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory into space several months later. The problem is that the missile warning mission, the Mars mission, and a separate mission to Jupiter all need to use the same Atlas 5 launch vehicle complex at Cape Canaveral within a few months, and any delays in the initial launch could unravel plans for subsequent launches. In reporter Brinton’s words,

“NASA must launch its Juno mission to Jupiter between Aug. 5 and Aug. 23, or wait another 13 months for the next opportunity. Then NASA must launch the flagship-class Mars Science Laboratory mission in November or else wait two years for the next opportunity.”

Given the inflexible timeframes in which the planetary missions must be launched, the solution is to defer launch of the missile warning satellite if it delayed for any reason, right? Wrong! The first launch of the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) that will detect hostile missiles has already been delayed many years, and we can’t wait any longer to replace aging early warning satellites already in orbit. If we do wait longer, there is a real danger that the government might lose its ability to detect some nuclear attacks. Obviously, you can’t deter such attacks effectively if you can’t detect them.

The government never talks in public about the status of the existing missile warning constellation, anonymously designated the Defense Support Program. But there is evidence that some satellites in the constellation are on their last legs. In fact, a few are already functioning well beyond their nominal design lives. When a satellite no longer has the redundancy left to cope with a parts or circuit failure, it is said to have become a “single-string” bird. It appears some birds in the present constellation have become just that as the government has waited for SBIRS to mature.

Clearly, the preferred outcome would be to launch the first SBIRS satellite on time — in late April or early May. That way, the two planetary missions can go up within their scheduled launch windows. But if anything prevents the missile warning satellite from launching on time, then I would vote for delaying the Jupiter mission and even the Mars Science Lab. It is simply too dangerous to wait any longer for new missile warning capabilities. We can’t run the risk of being blind to nuclear attacks, and no one can say with complete confidence how much longer some of the existing missile warning satellites will remain functional.