Fogbound in Space

Jan. 1, 1994

The US military space program still has its spectacular moments. Last April, an Air Force F-16 and a Navy EA-6B swept low across the China Lake test range in southern California, using signals from space to hunt a pair of mobile radar targets. The targeting data were downlinked to the fighters from “national systems”-a euphemism for secret intelligence satellites-in space. Pressing their attack with that guidance alone, both aircraft fired perfect shots from beyond visual and radar range with their High-Speed Antiradiation Missiles (HARMs).

In August, another Navy EA-6B and a P-3 maritime patrol aircraft used similar signals from space to locate a small target ship moving off the California coast. Shooting over the horizon, they first disabled the craft’s radar with a HARM, then blew a gaping hole in its side with a Harpoon missile.

This ability to hit a battlefield target seen only by a satellite in orbit was a totally new trick for fighter aircraft. The two demonstrations, part of programs code-named “Talon Sword” and “Radiant Oak,” also reflect the new emphasis that US Space Command and its service components put on support of combat forces. Space operations, once regarded as a novelty by the rest of the force, have become indispensable for communications, navigation, weather reporting, reconnaissance, command and control, and a good many other things.

A recently developed device called “Talon Hook” combines a tiny Navstar Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver with the emergency radio that aircrew members carry. If a flyer goes down in hostile territory, he can transmit his exact location to the rescue team via satellite with one short electronic signal that is nearly impossible to detect or trace. Up to now, rescue helicopters have spent long hours searching for downed aviators while enemy troops, monitoring radio transmissions, were looking for them too.

The spark plug for the operational orientation is Gen. Charles A. Horner, USSPACECOM commander in chief, who became an enthusiastic champion of space systems after seeing their value in the Persian Gulf War, when he was air boss. That conflict made space believers of a lot of people, not all of them friendly.

“We are not the only nation learning lessons from Desert Storm,” General Horner told the Senate. “Other countries are no longer content to stand on the sidelines and admire our military prowess in space.” By the turn of the century, dozens of nations are expected to have their own satellites, space launchers, or both.

Even during the Gulf War, the US military space program was not as hardy as it looked when the satellites were helping roll up the score. And for the most part today, the armed forces and Space Command are wringing the last bits of advantage out of old systems put into orbit by obsolete launchers.

The worst problems derive from the ailing national space program, of which the military space program is an inescapable part. The United States is the only nation that ever put men on the moon. In subsequent years, however, it lapsed into a syndrome of mistakes and indecision that, all too conceivably, may leave it on the sidelines of space in the twenty-first century.

The Glory Fades

In 1978, flush with the glory of the Apollo moon shots, the United States committed the future of its space program almost exclusively to the space shuttle, three years before it flew its first mission. Fortunately, the Air Force-over NASA’s objections-kept a backup program to convert a few ICBMs for use as expendable launch vehicles. By the time the shuttle’s limitations and liabilities became apparent in the 1980s, though, other nations had a head start in the development of efficient new rockets to put practical payloads into orbit.

Various plans to catch up, notably the Advanced Launch System and the National Launch System, died in the conceptual stages. We are still marking time. The Pentagon’s “Bottom-Up Review” last summer rejected options to develop new launch vehicles in favor of keeping the present ones (Delta, Atlas, and Titan IV were specified) in service through the year 2030. Two new working groups organized by the White House are supposed to study the situation and report back in June. It remains to be seen whether they will discover anything missed by the multitude of panels and commissions that studied the problem before.

As recently as 1982, the United States had ninety percent of the world space-launch market. The share has dropped to thirty percent and is still sinking. The chairman of Arianespace, the marketing arm of the European Space Agency, predicts that in ten years his competition will come from Russia, China, and Japan-not from the United States. The cost to put a pound of payload, military or commercial, into orbit with a US launcher is at least double the cost of foreign launchers. As business gravitates overseas, the prorated cost of a US launch goes up. In a chilling admonition last year, the Senate told the Department of Defense to consider using foreign boosters to launch national security payloads.

The US launch schedule is an embarrassment. Only four percent of the shots get off on time. American space probes are custom-assembled on the pad, where they typically spend months-compared to an average of ten days on the pad for launches by the European Space Agency’s Ariane rocket. The armed forces have pointed often to the need for “operationally responsive” launch-meaning the ability to put up a satellite as required within a reasonable time from a standing start-but that is not possible today.

Satellite technology is slipping away, too. A survey last summer found the United States ahead in only five of eighteen critical technologies and likely to be trailing Japan and Europe in most areas within fifteen years.

The prospect for improved military satellites is uncertain. Current systems for missile attack warning, for example, were not designed to meet the main threat now emerging-theater ballistic missiles-and the capability to detect and counter them is marginal. Nevertheless, funding for follow-on systems will be difficult to get in the austere 1990s.

A chronic problem with the space program is indecisiveness. The nation is torn between practical applications-medium-size payloads in Earth orbit-and more exotic boosters to reach deeper into space. The battle between short-range economy and long-range gain is constant. There is no consensus on whether to pursue expendable launchers, reusable ones, or both.

Trucks and Race Cars

The dramatic debut of the year was the successful hover test in August of the “Delta Clipper,” a one-third-scale prototype of a reusable spacecraft built by McDonnell Douglas. The small rocket lifted vertically off the pad in the traditional manner, hovered momentarily, moved sideways along the field, then settled smartly back down on the pad in a vertical position.

The full-size Delta Clipper, if it ever becomes operational, would carry 20,000-pound payloads to low Earth orbit and return to Earth intact, with the same body and lift engines. The prototype is currently the leading example of single stage to orbit (SSTO) technology. Among its notable enthusiasts has been NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, who had called for an experimental SSTO vehicle to be flying by 1995. Last fall, however, he backed away from that position, saying his agency had gotten “too far out in front,” and deferred to White House policymakers, who are still studying the question.

General Horner has avoided advocacy of specific launch solutions but says the attraction of SSTO is lower cost. “The reusable is a more expensive vehicle in up-front costs, but if you can get five or ten flights out of it, it amortizes,” he says, adding a caution that “we got burned on the space shuttle on that. Remember, it was going to be low-cost, but it turned out to be high-cost, so we’ve got to be a little bit careful.”

Another alternative is Spacelifter, proposed by the Aldridge Commission in 1992 as a family of low-cost launch vehicles. The National Space Council recommended that Spacelifter concentrate on payloads of 20,000 pounds or less to low Earth orbit, since they account for eighty-five percent of the launch requirements. So far, Spacelifter is more of an idea than a program. It has not been defined, nor is it funded. In Washington shorthand, however, “Spacelifter” is widely understood as referring to an expendable system based largely on existing technology.

In October, a group of congressional staffers from five different House and Senate committees seized center stage of the space-launch debate with a between-the-eyes briefing that said “what the nation needs is trucks” (rugged, cheap, reliable) but “what it builds is race cars” (complicated, fragile, high-strung). “Foreign launch systems are not beating US launch systems because they are high-tech,” the staffers said. “To the contrary, foreign launch systems appear to be designed for simplicity, ease of assembly and processing, low cost, with forgiving margins and operational robustness.”

Charging that “US launch vehicles attempt to drain every ounce of performance out of their design,” the staffers pointed to “the recent Titan failure” as an example. (A Titan IV carrying three satellites blew up in flight August 2.) Because of the vehicle’s “performance-driven design,” the staffers said, the thickness of insulation in the solid rocket motor varied, depending on the duration of flame exposure expected for each section. Because of a defect, the flame reached an area of the motor case sooner than it should have. “If the motor insulation had been a constant thickness, the motor would have had less performance, but it would have been less costly to build, and the failure would not have occurred,” the staffers said.

The Bull’s-Eye

Space Command would prefer to concentrate on delivering medium-size satellites to the basic terrestrial orbits. That would cover the vast majority of its requirements. “I think we have to hit the bull’s-eye first, and that’s the medium lift,” General Horner says.

The availability of an efficient medium lifter might even influence the people now designing large payloads “to size down the big ones to make them medium,” General Horner believes. Space Command is discovering already that some payloads can go on smaller launchers. During last year’s Bottom-Up Review, contractors said they could rework the Follow-On Early Warning System (FEWS) to ride on a medium lifter instead of the larger and more expensive Titan IV.

The way the US system has traditionally worked, payload designers build the satellite to their own specifications, then look for a rocket that can be modified to launch it and a control system that can be modified to fly it. This is in contrast to the European Space Agency operation at Kourou in French Guiana. There, a ready-to-fly satellite is delivered to the pad, where it can be mated quickly with a standard, ready-to-fly rocket.

The first step toward solving launch costs, General Horner says, is to stop making every shot a custom event and establish standards and procedures. “We have to enforce a discipline in the design of the satellite that recognizes what lift is available and what control system is available,” he says. Standard sizes, fittings, couplings, and procedures have long been the rule in other operational regimes. “We no longer build a new aircraft or install unique components each time one launches. Aircraft launches, maintenance, supply, etc., follow standard practices developed over the years. The same attitude, the same approach, must now be taken with space systems.”

(The experimental orientation is still strong in space culture. “In space, we still count our successes,” General Horner notes. “We still cheer when we get a successful launch.”)

The congressional staff briefers also called for payload standardization and further proposed that the government appoint a launch czar, empowered to say, “If you want your payload to fly on my launch vehicle, your payload must have a standard interface with my launch vehicle. You may not ‘build’ your payload at my launch pad. You must process and ‘encapsulate’ your payload away from my launch pad. You may not designate a specific vehicle ‘tail number’ to be used to launch your specific payload. You may not make performance demands on my launch vehicle.”

Another aspect of General Horner’s campaign to reduce idiosyncrasies and establish routine in the space program is that enlisted airmen in the Falcon AFB, Colo., control center now “fly” satellites, including Navstar GPS. “In the past, it was felt that only officers could do that job,” General Horner says. “Before that, it was felt that only people who designed the satellite could fly it. What it means is that if you get satellites that are standard design, and you get satellite control software that is standard design, then quite frankly it doesn’t matter what the satellite is. You just develop procedures for it-checklists, like we do for airplanes or tanks or ships-and you start operating your satellites in a disciplined, standardized, military manner.”

The Ballistic Missile Problem

In testimony to Congress last year, General Horner declared US Space Command’s top priority to be FEWS, to replace the Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites designed to detect Soviet strategic missile attack during the Cold War. Thanks to some last-minute modifications, DSP did surprisingly well at warning of Scud missile attack in the Gulf War.

“The modified DSP functioned near the limits of upgraded design capability throughout the Gulf War and benefited from exceptionally unique and favorable geographic, weather, and operational conditions-conditions that are unlikely to be duplicated in any future conflict,” General Horner testified to the Senate last year.

Something better is needed for the main threat now emerging, the proliferation of theater ballistic missiles. “It’s a tribute to air superiority that the last time an American soldier was killed by air attack was in April 1953,” says former Secretary of the Air Force Donald B. Rice. “But the last time an American soldier was killed by ballistic missile attack was February 1991.”

Theater ballistic missiles are a relatively inexpensive form of military force. The Pentagon estimates that the typical adversary in a major regional conflict would have between 100 and 1,000 Scud-class missiles, some of them likely to be carrying nuclear, chemical, or biological warheads. The US has no active plans for defeating these missiles with weapons from space, but as operations in the Gulf War demonstrated, timely warning and terrestrial defenses can counter some of the attacks.

Space Command wanted FEWS, which is ten times as sensitive as DSP, to pick up theater missiles as they launch. “FEWS will see dimmer and shorter-burning targets and will detect missiles DSP cannot see,” General Horner said. Almost everyone agreed with that assessment and with the problem as stated. The difficulty was money. General Horner suggested last summer that the last three DSP satellites be canceled, if necessary, to help pay for FEWS.

A cuing satellite named Brilliant Eyes also figured in some proposed solutions. After the early warning satellite detects a launch, Brilliant Eyes would take over, track the warhead, and direct an intercept at extended range.

The issue took a surprise turn in September when the former DSP program manager was quoted in the news media as saying an upgraded DSP system could do the job nearly as well as FEWS and for less money. Space Command stood by its stated requirement for FEWS. General Horner told an Air Force Association symposium October 29 that DSP “does the strategic mission very well, but it’s physically impossible for it to meet the theater warfighting need. We have means of taking DSP and making it better, but all of them are Band-Aids.”

News media reports, fueled by under-the-table allegations, continued to depict the Air Force as suppressing data on alternatives to FEWS. Support for the program was already spotty in Congress and among Administration policymakers. Pentagon topsiders decided in November to eliminate FEWS funding for budget reasons. According to an internal Air Force memo obtained by the Los Angeles Times, Under Secretary of Defense John Deutch cut off appeals to restore the program, saying, “Let me start over. . . . FEWS is zero.”

First in Space

Among the armed forces, the Air Force is foremost in space. It provides ninety-three percent of the personnel in US Space Command, conducts nearly all of the military launches, controls the major military systems in orbit, and puts up most of the money.

The Department of Defense has thought about giving the military space mission to the Air Force outright but has shied away from doing so, partly because the other services would oppose such a move. Another reason, explained in a Pentagon response to a consolidation proposal from the General Accounting Office, is “to maintain a strong cadre of service expertise in space operations as the use of space in warfighting expands dramatically.”

In the 1950s, both the Army and the Navy were involved more deeply in space than the Air Force was, but their main programs transferred to NASA when it was formed. It soon became obvious that somebody needed to handle the military end of things, though, and in 1961 the Department of Defense designated the Air Force to develop boosters and integrate payloads. The Air Force was also given stewardship of the National Reconnaissance Office, which has operated classified satellites for both the military and intelligence communities for the past forty years. Today, the Army and Navy Space Commands are far smaller and more specialized than Air Force Space Command.

Congress complains periodically about dispersion of the military space program. In September, the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee cited the “lack of clearly defined responsibilities for space programs at senior levels in the Pentagon” and groused that the committee had gotten statements from eight defense organizations, none of which had a charter to speak for the department as a whole. The committee suggested making the Secretary of the Air Force the executive agent for military space programs, with responsibility covering payloads, launch, ground infrastructure, acquisition, and R&D.

For his part, General Horner seems more concerned about duplication than about service primacy. As new satellites become operational-Navstar GPS replacing the Navy’s Transit, for example, or when Milstar assumes the central communications job for all users-much of the duplication in launch and control will vanish by attrition. “With regard to the product of satellites, that issue is more difficult because each type of satellite has different products and different functions,” General Horner says. “There may well be a role for a service to work a payload. When you think about intelligence and things like that, working a payload may well belong to an agency outside the Air Force. That doesn’t bother me because that’s not duplication.”

Since its creation in 1985, US Space Command has always been headed by an Air Force officer-although not always the same officer who headed Air Force Space Command. No successor has yet been named to follow General Horner, who reaches mandatory retirement in June.

Everybody’s in Space

An even more complicated issue is sorting out the relationship between the military and all of the other organizations involved in the space program. The assorted civilian and military operations depend on much the same launch systems and infrastructure. They often share data.

Aware that Congress will not fund parallel programs, federal agencies are looking seriously at consolidations and dual use. The Air Force, for instance, may turn its meteorological satellites over to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with which there are some overlaps in working the weather problem.

A high-profile example of dual agency use is Navstar GPS, the constellation of military satellites that gives users on the ground or in the air a precise fix of their location anywhere on earth. Navstar practically became a household name during the Gulf War, and civilian applications are spreading fast.

In a demonstration by the Federal Aviation Administration in September, a business jet followed GPS signals for twelve miles along the contours of the Potomac River to land at Washington National Airport. “This is probably one of the most important advances in the history of aviation navigation,” an FAA official declared, looking ahead to a time when Navstar may provide the basic landing system for airports around the world.

Space Command will retain the capability in wartime to distort the GPS signal somewhat for those without cleared access. This is primarily so the enemy cannot use it for precision attack. On the basis of his experience in the Gulf War, General Horner discounts the concern that Space Command might not be allowed to distort the signal. “When men and women are dying on the battlefield, the nation is not going to have a problem saying to the civilian users of GPS, ‘Next week, don’t make any low approaches in fog.’ There are some aspects of GPS that both sides are going to enjoy in war, [such as] the navigation side of it. We can’t stop that. I don’t think that’s a critical aspect.”

The military used remote sensing information from NOAA’s Landsat for mapping in the Gulf War and for aerial missions over the Balkans. Landsat illustrates one of the difficulties inherent in a scattered space program: Different users have different requirements. Landsat satellites pass over a given spot along the equator every sixteen days. They provide broad-scope resolution, and it usually takes several weeks to get the information into the user’s hands. That isn’t always tight enough or fast enough for military purposes.

The armed forces also make extensive use of commercial communications satellites. They even get some data from foreign platforms, such as the French SPOT remote sensing satellite. A major example of data sharing is military use of information from satellites owned by the Central Intelligence Agency and other secretive organizations. The Defense Department’s Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities (TENCAP) program was devised to ease the access. The flow is running better than it once did, but, as General Horner says, “success in TENCAP is turning out the lights,” marking a time when the product is forthcoming without a special program.

The Department of Transportation is a player in the program, too, concerned about US market shares and the commercial requirements for space transportation. A recent Transportation panel called for emphasis on medium-size payloads launched to geosynchronous transfer orbit for about $6,000 per pound (half the cost of a US launch today) with ninety percent probability that the launch will occur within ten days of schedule. That prescription sounds remarkably like Space Command’s.

Most of the money in the federal space program is spent by two agencies: the Department of Defense and NASA. Their relationship from the beginning has been a mixture of cooperation and competition. It’s doubtful that NASA’s shuttle would ever have gotten off the ground without the presumption that it would carry defense payloads, and a fierce turf fight ensued in the 1980s when the Air Force wanted to develop expendable launch vehicles as a backup. The shuttle still carries some national security payloads but not as many as it did before the Challenger disaster. (As of November, the Defense Department had no payloads manifested for the shuttle.)

NASA and military interests are interlocking but not identical. Whereas the services are mostly concerned with working payloads in Earth orbit, NASA’s vision tends toward larger, long-reach systems and programs that include the space station and a manned mission to explore Mars.

The National Space Council, chaired by the Vice President, was a referee of sorts for the national space program, but it was disbanded last year. What’s left of it has been folded into the Office of Science and Technology Policy. It is not yet clear what emphasis and spin that body will put on space. During the 1992 election campaign, the Clinton-Gore team called for restoring the “historical funding equilibrium,” charging that the Reagan and Bush Administrations spent too much on military space programs compared to civilian space projects.

The Next Engine

If and when the United States gets going on new space systems, one of the first things it will need is better engines. Propulsion generally accounts for about twenty-five percent of a launch vehicle’s cost and has a strong influence on how the rest of the system is developed.

Current expendable launch systems are derivatives of ICBMs. They have served the nation well-particularly in the dark days following the Challenger disaster-but they are stretching to do a job not envisioned in their original design. The last real space engine development was the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) in 1971.

The congressional staff briefers likened the SSME to “a three-ton Swiss watch,” calling it “a marvel of American engineering, producing more thrust per pound of dead weight than any other rocket engine in the world. On the other hand, it is temperamental, takes years to build, and is prone to developing cracks in turbine blades, pump housings, etc. It is routinely operated at a throttle setting of 104 percent. It takes three man-years just to inspect those engines after each use.”

The best preview of the next launch engine may be one developed by the Space Transportation Propulsion Team. This is a three-company consortium (Aerojet, Pratt & Whitney, and Rocketdyne) formed originally to work on the National Launch System before it was canceled.

The congressional briefers cited this engine-built to trade off weight and performance for reliability and cost-as typifying “the right philosophy” in designing systems to cure the US space problem.

Given the overall drift of things, it should come as no surprise that the consortium engine is not currently an item in any federal department’s budget, and the team working on it has been cut to ten people.

Payloads in Orbit

(As of September 30, 1993)











European Space Agency












International Telecommunications Satellite Organization












North Korea




Saudi Arabia






United Kingdom


United States


Fromer Czechoslovakia


Former Soviet States




Large nations no longer have a monopoly on data from space. At present, smaller countries buy their satellites on the world market and pay to have them launched, but the number with capability to build and launch their own systems will almost surely increase.

Source: TRW Space Log

The High Cost of Launch

Pounds to Low Earth Orbit

Cost per Launch (FY 93 dollars)

Titan II


$40 million – $45 million

Delta II


$45 million – $50 million

Atlas II


$60 million – $70 million

Titan IV


$170 million – $220 million

Launch costs vary with circumstances-and circumstances definitely vary. Estimates similar to those on this chart, however, are used extensively within the space community to compare the four main US expendable launchers. When a payload cannot be accommodated on Atlas II, it’s an enormous jump in cost to put it on Titan IV. Costs for a space shuttle launch vary, too, but a figure of $650 million might be used for comparison here. Space and weight penalties attributable to the presence of a crew on the shuttle mean that the cost per pound of payload launched will be high.

Source: Space Transportation Propulsion Team.

Personnel Intensive Operations

Launch Operations

Size of Launch Crew

Days on Launch Pad

Ariane IV

about 100


Delta II






Titan IV

more than 1,000


Launch Base Range Operations

Kourou Space Center

about 900

Cape Canaveral AFS (excluding NASA)


NASA Kennedy Space Center


Roles and missions vary at the launch bases, accounting for some of the differences shown here. In general, though, US launch operations are characterized by the large numbers of people required and by procedures that keep space vehicles on the pad for extended periods. According to congressional staffers, NASA spends between 500,000 and 1,400,000 man-hours processing a space shuttle orbiter before each flight.

Source: Congressional Staff Briefing, October 1993