Printer Friendly

Moving military missiles to market.

It may well be the proverbial match made in heaven--or, more specifically, for the heavens. The civil space program needs smaller, more affordable missions, and the primary obstacle is a lack of small, low-cost, expendable launch vehicles (SELVs). The Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty requires the United States to remove hundreds of solid-fueled ballistic missiles from silos and submarines, and these missiles can be converted into SELVs.

The federal government should make surplus missiles, such as Minuteman 2, available to the civil sector, and aspiring commercial providers of space-related goods and services should be challenged to convert the missiles into cost-effective launch vehicles. The modifications are not trivial, but there is little doubt as to their technical feasibility. Success will not only initiate a renaissance in space-related scientific research and technology development, but also trigger the growth of a vigorous and competitive commercial space industry.

The Department of Defense has taken at least the first steps in this direction. Under a directive of the National Space Launch Strategy issued in July 1991, the department has been evaluating options for surplus strategic missiles "in terms of their consistency with U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, available agency resources, defense industrial base considerations, and with due regard to economic impact on the commercial space sector, promoting competition, and the long-term public interest." The department's analysis and conclusions--which reportedly will favor at least qualified use of surplus missiles in the space program--will have to reviewed by the White House's National Space Council and the National Security Council before any policy changes can become official.

Benefits of thinking small

Small missions utilizing converted missiles are most needed in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) program in space science and applications. The program now calls for one major mission (costing more than $500 million) every three years, one or two mid-sized missions ($200 to $500 million), and two to four less-expensive "small" missions. But even NASA's smallest missions, called Small Explorers, cost about $30 million each, with another $10 million to $15 million slated for launch costs. This hefty price tag means that numerous research opportunities go unexplored. Instead, truly small missions should cost only about $4 to $8 million, with launch expenses (including the launch vehicle) accounting for less than $2 million of the total. NASA could then afford to conduct perhaps 25 small missions each year, greatly expanding the scope of scientific research.

Smaller missions can be planned with considerably shorter lead times and flexible launch schedules. NASA's major projects typically take ten or more years from the go-ahead decision to launch, and even the Small Explorers require roughly three-year lead times. Smaller missions should require as little as six months lead time, with less than 30 days needed to integrate the spacecraft with the launch vehicle. Although speed may not be important for every mission, there are times when researchers need to respond quickly to unexpected events or make last-minute updates in equipment.

The low cost and short lead times of smaller missions offer several important benefits. Perhaps most important, smaller missions make technological risk affordable. Simply put, NASA's major missions are so expensive that failure is catastrophic. As a result, new technology is eschewed in favor of older, tried-and-true technology, and there is too little innovation in the approach to design, fabrication, reliability, and quality assurance. Since the cost of failure is so much less with smaller missions, designers can be encouraged to use the most advanced technology. Indeed, with modern technology, smaller spacecraft will be more capable, pound for pound and dollar for dollar, than larger missions.

Smaller missions also can broaden the participation of young scientists and engineers in the nation's space program. Given their complexity, spacecraft used in major missions are necessarily produced by experienced professionals in high-tech national laboratories and industrial concerns. Missing are opportunities for university graduate students to get the kind of practical experience that teaches them how components are made, how components become subsystems, and how subsystems become systems; that teaches them how sensors sense and how they are designed and fabricated; and that teaches them how spaceflight instruments are built and tested. Smaller missions can provide this practical, hands-on experience--and do so within a time frame that fits the average of five years that space science and engineering students spend in graduate school.

With their improved capabilities, smaller-mission spacecraft can perform many of the tasks in space science and applications that NASA currently assigns to larger missions--and likely can perform them cheaper and faster. Consequently, NASA can incorporate many small missions without adding to overall program costs simply by assigning to them an appropriate subset of the tasks now allotted to missions that have not advanced beyond the design stage.

Small missions can perform tasks across the entire spectrum of space-related scientific research and technology development. Among the uses already proposed to NASA or being discussed by researchers are:

* Missions that provide simultaneous observations by spacecraft at various locations. Multispacecraft missions are required, for example, to characterize the dynamics of large-scale natural systems such as the solar wind (the magnetized stream of charged particles flowing from the sun) and the Earth's magnetosphere.

* Missions slated for Mission to Planet Earth, NASA's contribution to the national research initiative on global change.

* Microgravity experiments that require a platform free from the contamination of small fluctuations in acceleration, called "g jitter," that beset larger multipurpose spacecraft.

* Technology testing to provide in situ certification of materials, components, subsystems, or systems prior to use on a major mission.

* Missions to explore other planets and to develop new exploration technology, including instruments for hard and soft landings and equipment to collect samples and return them to Earth.

* Missions to assemble in orbit a number of smaller spacecraft into a larger platform and to develop "virtual platforms"--multiple spacecraft linked together electronically so that they behave as a single platform.

Getting down to business

Ample surplus missiles will be available for conversion into SELVs as a result of the START treaty, agreed to in 1991 by the United States and the former Soviet Union. The treaty specifically allows the use of modified strategic missiles to launch payloads for research and development, with restrictions that are relatively few and can easily be met.

According to an inventory prepared for the START treaty, the United States has more than 2,200 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, including 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and 672 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The treaty calls for reducing this arsenal by 29 percent. The Air Force's 450 Minuteman 2 missiles and the Navy's 192 Poseidon C3 missiles are most likely to be withdrawn from service under this reduction. Both use solid-fueled rocket motors and are suitable for conversion to space launchers. In addition, the United States and Russia (which inherited most of the Soviet missiles) are talking about deeper cuts, which over the near term will make even more missiles available for other uses.

Converting these missiles into small expendable launch vehicles and demonstrating their cost-effectiveness will require entrepreneurial skills and technical ingenuity. Consequently, the conversion process and the provision of launch services should be performed by the fledgling commercial space industry. The Defense Department should make surplus missiles or missile components available at no charge to qualified teams consisting of space-launch and space-services companies and groups that will use the spacecraft. This approach not only offers an additional benefit from the nation's tremendous investment in national security, but also eliminates the substantial cost of destroying surplus missiles. To protect national security, of course, classified components similar to those remaining in operational missiles, such as guidance systems or radiation-hardened components, will have to be removed under government auspices and replaced with commercial hardware.

Providing free surplus missiles will help remove what has proved a major barrier for small companies trying to enter the space market--lack of capital. Companies will be able to substitute government surplus for part of their working capital, which will increase their attractiveness to investors by increasing the potential for return on capital investments. In this way, government can satisfy its stated national space policy of encouraging the development of the commercial space sector. Indeed, this step may be necessary to keep U.S. companies competitive in the worldwide space market. Russia and several other former Soviet states are reportedly moving ahead with plans to convert surplus missiles into commercial launchers for space purposes.

As U.S. companies develop cost-effective small launch vehicles--defined as being able to boost payloads of more than 300 pounds into low-Earth orbit for less than $2 million--the market for small missions will be established. Competition then will encourage product improvements and the market will expand. Providers of capital will be better able to evaluate the risks and the benefits of their participation, and companies eventually will be able to acquire additional capital to incorporate new technologies into even more advanced and less costly small launch vehicles.

This approach has a history of success. After World War II, surplus propeller-driven medium bombers were converted into fast jet-powered executive aircraft, eventually spawning the worldwide business-jet industry. Similarly, government approval for converting surplus strategic missiles will help hasten the day when converted small launch vehicles will no longer be competitive--a day when technological progress will have led to advanced launchers that are entirely new and highly profitable.

Paul J. Coleman, Jr., is professor of space physics at the University of California at Los Angeles and president of the Universities Space Research Association.
COPYRIGHT 1992 National Academy of Sciences
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Coleman, Paul J., Jr.
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Date:Dec 22, 1992
Previous Article:Reconciling economic and environmental goals.
Next Article:A new mechanism to fund R&D.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters