You don’t have to be a political scientist or an engineer to see what the Obama Administration plan for NASA’s manned space flight program means. It is the end of the road. The brave vision of human beings walking on the Moon and Mars that was born in the Kennedy years is dying, overwhelmed by endless waves of entitlement spending that leave little room for bold investments in an exciting future. Apparently the Obama Administration would rather funnel money to favored constituencies who produce nothing than maintain America’s lead in space technology.
Some scientists say the White House has made the right choice, because unmanned space missions generate more tangible benefits than manned space flight. That may be so, but the destructive consequences of ending manned missions for the foreseeable future will spread far beyond the civil space program. An early victim will be the solid rocket motor industry — another fading example of American technology leadership that produces systems essential to space missions, nuclear deterrence, missile defense, tactical warfare, and a host of other applications.
Solid rocket motors are basically cylinders packed with grains of fuel and oxidizer that produce high levels of thrust when ignited. Although they typically are less energetic than liquid-fueled rocket motors, they are also much more stable prior to ignition, meaning they can be safely stored and moved for many years. That matters a lot when the motors are on missiles carried by submarines or supersonic fighters. It matters so much, in fact, that nobody in their right mind would seriously consider using anything but solid rocket motors to propel most missiles.
Because solid rocket motor technology is so versatile, many different systems can be derived from the same basic technology. But most of the demand for the motors in the U.S. comes from a handful of Pentagon and NASA programs, all of which are now scheduled for cutbacks in the years ahead. Among the moves under way:
— The Space Shuttle, which employs reusable solid rocket motors, will soon cease operation.
— The Constellation program to send astronauts to the Moon and then Mars is being canceled.
— The Air Force has largely completed its modernization of land-based Minuteman ballistic missiles.
— The Navy has trimmed its annual purchase of Trident sea-based ballistic missiles to a modest number.
— The Missile Defense Agency has dropped plans for a Kinetic Energy Interceptor and fixed European defensive site.
Collectively, these moves will eliminate most of the demand for solid rocket motors in the United States. Demand for some types of high-end boosters will disappear entirely, to be followed not long after by disappearance of the workers and skills associated with their assembly. Production of smaller motors for systems like the AMRAAM and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles will continue, but you can’t simply scale up those motors to make space boosters.
As aggregate demand declines, the cost of any given type of motor will increase because economies of scale will be lost. So the decision to kill off the manned space flight program will have consequences for users far beyond the NASA community. In particular, the military will have to shoulder more of the burden of maintaining whatever remains of the industrial base.
Amy Butler of Aviation Week & Space Technology reported earlier this week that the government is forming an interagency task force to figure out how the solid rocket motor industrial base can be preserved. Anybody who has followed the past history of such task forces already knows the answer: the government needs to buy the items in question. You can’t preserve skills if you don’t have a production facility and a workforce. But given the administration’s plans to create even more entitlements in the midst of a federal fiscal crisis, the demand needed to sustain the solid rocket motor industrial base isn’t likely to materialize unless Congress steps in to change priorities.
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