In the years since the Cold War ended, the federal government has repeatedly put America’s leadership in space at risk by embracing bad ideas. These ideas typically promise to deliver faster, cheaper, more flexible solutions to what historically have been very demanding tasks. They usually don’t pan out, for the simple reason that you can’t amend the laws of physics the way you would change a piece of legislation. No matter what bright idea has captured the political culture, you still have to be traveling seven miles per second to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull, and that generates stresses to which few other manmade objects will ever be exposed. Operations on orbit are similarly harrowing, even if there aren’t astronauts involved to complicate the challenge.
So when you hear that somebody is going to do something in the space business that has never been done before, you should be skeptical. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, says he can safely launch billion-dollar spy satellites into orbit for a song by bolting together 27 of his Merlin engines in a single first stage. We’ll see. And United Launch Alliance says it can have a liquid methane-oxygen engine ready to replace Russian rocket engines on the Atlas launch vehicle in five years — even though nobody’s ever done that before. Outsiders have to accept these claims largely on faith, because federal policies regarding the use of commercial launch services allow companies to keep secret many details of their plans. As with nuclear deterrence, the first clear indication you may have that some exciting idea in the space business isn’t working is when it blows up.
Which brings me to the Air Force’s plan to develop a new American-made rocket engine. The Air Force is the lead military service for space, and it has made huge progress over the last dozen years in recovering from a slew of bad ideas that hobbled space efforts in the Clinton years. One by one, satellite development programs that had gone awry were either fixed or replaced. After some spectacular launch failures in the 1990s, a new generation of expendable launch vehicles operated by United Launch Alliance has performed perfectly through 70 consecutive liftoffs. When Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, the former head of the Air Force’s space and missile center, was put under political pressure to speed up certification of an alternate launch provider, she rebuffed critics with a comment that she didn’t intend to be the first commander of her organization to lose a payload on launch.
However, the launch vehicle on which the military relies most heavily today, the Atlas V, uses the Russian RD-180 engine in its first stage. In the aftermath of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, that has come to be regarded as an unacceptable vulnerability, and Congress has pressed for development of an alternative. The Air Force responded by issuing a request for information from potential suppliers of a U.S.-made engine. Problem is, the service was already functioning under severe spending constraints due to the Budget Control Act, and so finding the money for an engine competition isn’t easy. The last time money was tight like this, during the Clinton years, a series of mis-steps were made in the space program because officials were trying to find cheaper ways of accomplishing critical tasks. We can’t afford to let that happen again. The process for selecting a new domestically-built rocket engine needs to be conducted as rigorously as possible, and with a realistic sense of what is possible.
Maybe United Launch Alliance and team-mate Blue Origin can come up with a reliable methane-oxygen engine quickly; maybe they can expeditiously integrate it with a new launch vehicle; maybe they can get it tested and certified in record time. And maybe they can’t. Past experience suggests it is not smart to simply hope for the best. The same applies to SpaceX, which saw its most recent launch attempt fail shortly after liftoff. No matter how difficult the Air Force’s budget circumstances may be and how appealing it finds the idea of relying on commercial launch providers, the service’s space community needs to be intimately involved at each step in this process, with an eye to getting rid of those Russian engines in a reasonable timeframe. That’s what Congress wants, and that’s what national security demands.
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