U.S. Spy Satellite Program Could Be Undermined By Flagging Demand For Rocket Motors
Amy Butler of Aviation Week & Space Technology reported last week that the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office will be launching new spy satellites over the next two years at the highest rate since the Reagan era. Butler quotes NRO director Bruce Carlson as stating that several "very large, very critical" spacecraft will be sent into orbit by his agency -- presumably systems that collect imagery of surface targets or eavesdrop on the radio-frequency transmissions of potential adversaries. Combined with impending launches of new military-communications and missile-warning satellites, news of the spy-satellite payloads will come as welcome news to the nation's endangered rocket-motor industry.
But trouble lies ahead for the rocket-motor sector. The Space Shuttle is nearing the end of its remarkable run as the nation's only means for lofting astronauts into low-earth orbit, and President Obama plans to largely dismantle the Constellation program that would have replaced it as the centerpiece of NASA's human space-flight program. In addition, the Air Force has completed modernization of the nation's land-based ballistic missile force, Navy demand for sea-based ballistic missiles is at a low ebb, and a major missile-defense program using solid-fuel boosters has been terminated. So despite the accelerated rate of national-security space launches, it appears that most of the demand for large rocket motors is disappearing.
That trend will have several negative consequences for the nation. First, with fewer launches across which to spread infrastructure and overhead costs, the price of each launch is likely to increase drastically. Second, as demand declines it will become harder for rocket-motor companies to preserve key skills and invest in new technology. And third, the higher rate of overseas commercial launches may enable countries such as China and Russia to surpass the United States in capabilities needed to assure access to space. With most of the demand for both solid and liquid rocket motors coming from federal agencies, this is not a problem that can be left to the marketplace to resolve. But figuring out what the government should do to preserve its launch options will require much thought.
Perhaps the place to begin is by recognizing that the government needs to have some sort of industrial policy for the rocket-motor sector. That means projecting future levels of federal demand for various types of motors and then taking steps to assure that the necessary technology will be available at an acceptable price. Production of rocket motors is a dangerous, demanding process that requires a variety of specialized skills, so any initiative aimed at bolstering the sector will require a deep understanding of needed infrastructure and labor resources. It will probably also require a grasp of how capital markets are likely to respond to different policy approaches, since most of the relevant capabilities reside with public-traded companies. Few experts believe it would be cost-effective for the government to take over and run essential facilities, but in the years ahead Washington will have to do more than is currently planned to keep producers and investors committed to the business.