The United States is on the verge of a strong resurgence in space. The plan that the Air Force forged in 1986 for a comeback there from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster has been put into action and is paying off.
This is how Secretary of the Air Force Edward C. “Pete” Aldridge, Jr., sizes up the US space program, with emphasis on the Air Force’s stewardship of the national-security mission in space.
“I call 1988 the year of our recovery in space,” Secretary Aldridge declares. “We are back in the business of launching critical payloads. We have created a spacelaunch infrastructure that is stronger than the one we had before Challenger.”
The oft-delayed resumption of Space Shuttle Orbiter flights, scheduled at this writing for sometime next month, will be a major milestone on the road to such recovery.
But the Air Force has made sure that it will never again need to depend so heavily on the Shuttle as it once did, to its great regret, for gaining access to space.
Unmanned rockets outshine the Shuttles in USAF’s space-recovery scenario. Such boosters in several sizes are being developed, produced, and delivered for the purpose of launching a wide variety of national-security satellites, at least two dozen of which have languished all too long in earthbound storage while awaiting rides into space.
But not much longer, it seems. “I’m very positive about our space launch capability,” Secretary Aldridge declares. “We have a bunch of launch systems coming on board this year, including the Shuttle. We’ll begin working off our launch backlog, and in four years we’ll have it all worked off—and we’ll have built up a full stable of launch vehicles.”
Secretary Aldridge views space and the Air Force’s presence there from his vantage point as one of USAF’s top policymakers dealing with that so-called “fourth combat medium,” one in which many kinds of satellites built and launched by the Air Force support US military missions in many different ways.
The Secretary has also been a prime mover in the Air Force’s drive to extend space operations and exploit space technologies. He seems generally satisfied with progress thus far. But he is concerned that the Air Force may back away from its commitment to space systems and operations and that vital space technologies will be slighted at the expense of national security in these times of tighter defense budgets.
In his view, space-based radar is already a case in point, and the programs to develop heavy-lift booster rockets and the hypersonic National Aerospace Plane could also be victimized along the way if USAF does not watch out.
Mr. Aldridge became Under Secretary of the Air Force, a post traditionally involved to the hilt with USAF’s stewardship of space programs, in August 1981, not long after Space Shuttle Columbia had made its historic maiden flight. He took over as Secretary of the Air Force in June 1986, after things had gone sour—Challenger blew up, three unmanned launchers failed in shocking succession, and the US space program went into limbo for as long as it would take to put the spacelaunch pieces back together again.
“We were devastated,” Mr. Aldridge recalls.
“Absolutely Superb Performance”
Things are much different now. As Secretary Aldridge prepares to take his leave of the Pentagon later this year to return to the private sector, he can take heart not only from what is happening but from what did not happen in space during the difficult times.
Satellites that were overdue to be replaced on orbit, but could not be, did not falter or fail. They continued to perform beautifully long past their anticipated operational lifetimes.
“The major story of our recent launch hiatus was the absolutely superb performance of our on-orbit constellations,” Mr. Aldridge declares. “They saved our bacon. Some satellites lived longer than we could have expected, and we found ways, through ground systems, to use them innovatively.
“We would have been much better off without the tragic failure of Challenger and the accidents to the unmanned boosters. But we were never without the capability to fulfill national-security requirements. We met our goal of assured mission operations in space.”
Mr. Aldridge described older US early-warning satellites as having “performed flawlessly” despite their extended tours of sentry duty in space. Other stellar performers while overstaying on orbit were communications and navigations satellites, along with assorted classified “overhead assets.”
What is more, Secretary Aldridge asserts, “our systems exceeded those of the Soviets in performance.”
This raises a point that he believes must be emphasized, to wit: “The reality is that we are far ahead of the Soviets—technologically and qualitatively—in our national-security space program.”
The American public may be getting the wrong idea about this amid the running debate over the leadership and the goals of the civil side of the US space program, Mr. Aldridge fears.
“We need to set the record straight for our national-security space program,” he declares.
Given its technological and qualitative advantages, that program comes off well when matched against its Soviet counterpart, Mr. Aldridge believes.
He tips his cap to demonstrable Soviet advantages in man-days in space, launches per year, and total lift capability. But he claims that such raw, quantitative measurements “are not by themselves an accurate or reliable way to assess the relative strength of our national-security space program.
“The Soviets do possess a robust and resilient spacelaunch capability—and one that the US space program currently lacks. However, we are rapidly working to fix that by attaining our goal of assured launch capability.”
Last January, just before the second anniversary of the Challenger disaster, Mr. Aldridge sounded an upbeat tone in an address on a highly appropriate occasion—the “roll-in” of the first huge, new Martin Marietta Titan IV booster to its pad at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
He noted that the Air Force had resumed launching bulky satellites into space aboard Titan 34D rockets, one from Cape Canaveral and another from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., in late 1987. Hailing the introduction of the even larger Titan IV rockets, which will embody Centaur upper stages to hurl extra-heavy satellites into deep space, Secretary Aldridge declared:
“From this point forward, we will continue to significantly increase our capability to meet national-security requirements in space and maintain America’s space leadership well into the twenty-first century.”
The Titan IV boosters will share heavy-lift launch duties with the Space Shuttles. The first Titan IV launch of a payload into equatorial orbit will take place at Cape Canaveral rather soon; the second, sending its military payload into transpolar orbit from Vandenberg AFB, is scheduled for early next year.
The first Titan IV-Centaur launch of an ultraheavy military payload into geosynchronous orbit from Canaveral is scheduled for early 1990.
The Titan IV’s employment of the General Dynamics Centaur G-prime upper stage rocket makes it unique among all US boosters, including the Shuttle, in its ability to lift payloads as heavy as 10,000 pounds into geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the planet—up where early-warning satellites and many communications satellites, for example, do their jobs and where such satellites as the surveillance sentries of the planned Strategic Defense Initiative (SD!) system would hover, as it were.
NASA has long since abandoned its plan to use the Centaur as an upper stage for the Shuttle. Consequently, each Shuttle will be capable of boosting no more than 5,100 pounds of payload into geosynchronous orbit from low-earth orbit by means of its Inertial Upper Stage (IUS), a rocket that is also compatible with the Titan IV.
The Evolution of Titan IV
The nation has Secretary Aldridge to thank, at least as much as anyone else, for the Titan IV rockets on which the US space program now so heavily relies.
As Under Secretary of the Air Force in 1985, he led the drive to persuade the Administration and Congress to approve the Titan IV (then called the Titan 34D7 Complementary Expendable Launch Vehicle, or CELV) program to build big boosters to augment the Shuttles.
Congress authorized ten Titan IVs. After Challenger went down, it added thirteen more, again mainly at Mr. Aldridge’s urging. And once it became obvious that the Shuttle fleet would be grounded far longer than originally anticipated, yet another twenty Titan IVs were added to the future production run.
Meanwhile, USAF has refurbished thirteen Titan II ICBM boosters for launching relatively small satellites and has contracted with McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics to produce new Delta II and Atlas II booster rockets respectively.
The Delta II rockets are earmarked for launching Navstar navigation satellites; the larger Atlas II rockets with Centaur upper stages will launch medium-heavy DSCS III satellites into deep space.
Both varieties of satellites are among those, including many classified types, that are backed up awaiting launchings.
“But we’re getting there,” Mr. Aldridge says. “By the end of this year, we will have reestablished our launch-vehicle inventory—our full stable of launch vehicles—and 1988 is going to be a very significant year in our space recovery.
“We’ll continue to fly Titan 34s. We’ll have the first Titan II launch, the first Delta II launch, and the first Titan IV launch. And even though Atlas II won’t be launched for a couple more years, this is the year we gave it the go-ahead.”
Air Force Systems Command’s Space Division (SD) at Los Angeles AFB, Calif, was largely responsible for USAF’s space-comeback momentum. SD devised the recovery plan that serves as the blueprint for all launches well into the 1990s and for developing and allocating all new and modified booster rockets needed to bring the whole thing off.
Space Division has done “an excellent job,” Mr. Aldridge says.
It has been suggested that the US, as part of its space recovery plan, should build more launchpads or make better use of the ones it has. Addressing this, Mr. Aldridge says:
“Let’s look at it not just from the standpoint of assured access to space but in the broader context of assured mission operations—how we accomplish the missions that the satellites perform.
“We can do that without having to build more and different launchpads. We can do it by putting satellite spares on orbit, and that’s exactly where we’re heading. We’re focusing on on-orbit spares with the DSCS and GPS satellites, and we’ll do the same with Milstar [next-generation communications satellites].”
In some instances, the Secretary says, “It may be appropriate to have spares on the ground.” By and large, though, “It’s better to keep spares in space. They can be put into operation more quickly, and that’s a relatively benign environment up there. Things can happen to satellites in storage on the ground—like fires or somebody dropping something on them.”
The Challenger disaster was a blow, probably the knockout one, to the Secretary’s chances of becoming an astronaut. He had been preparing to serve as a crew member on the first flight of a Shuttle Orbiter out of Vandenberg AFB in July 1986, a flight that was scrubbed, along with all others until further notice, alter Challenger went down.
As time went by, it became apparent that structural changes required to make the Shuttles safer would also make them too heavy to take Air Force payloads of mission-sufficient weights into transpolar orbits from Vandenberg.
So USAF eventually mothballed the new, unused Space Launch Complex Six (SLC-6) that it had built at Vandenberg expressly to launch Shuttles with national-security payloads.
It now turns out that the Shuttles may yet find a home at Vandenberg. NASA hopes to upgrade their solid-rocket motors, adding enough thrust to enable them to shoulder Air Force payloads into transpolar orbits from the West Coast. But don’t hold your breath.
“If a decision is made to fly the Shuttle from Vandenberg, it would probably take four to five years for us to be back in operation there,” Secretary Aldridge says.
It is entirely possible that the Air Force may never need to use the Shuttle from Vandenberg, given its prospects for an abundance of unmanned launchers capable of handling Shuttle-sized payloads.
The Legacy of Challenger
This is Challenger’s legacy.
“Our spacelaunch fleet is much stronger than it would have been if Challenger hadn’t happened,” Mr. Aldridge says. “We would probably never have had this fleet of launch vehicles or the commercial launch industry that we have created because we are buying those vehicles.
“We recognized that we needed an alternative launch capability—something besides the Shuttle—long before the Challenger disaster.
But we probably would not have been able to create the capability—there was always pressure not to do so, and this came from the belief that the Shuttle could do the job.”
The Air Force is counting on Shuttle Orbiters to launch many of the national-security satellites now in storage. These particular payloads, says Secretary Aldridge, “have already been integrated with the Shuttle—and it would cost us too much money and take too much time to convert them to fly on expendables.
“They’re also very high-priority payloads because they’ll be replacing operational satellites.
“Once we get that backlog worked off, then you’ll see Department of Defense requirements for Shuttle flights drop to probably only three or four a year, and those will be focused on R&D payloads and experimental payloads that require the presence of man along with them.
“The strategy we’re following is this: Any payload that does not require the unique characteristics of man in the loop will fly on expendables. If we don’t require man to go along with a payload, we don’t want to use that very valuable and unique asset called the Shuttle to fly it.”
Cost-cutting is a highly important consideration in USAF’s gravitation toward expendable boosters and away from the Shuttle. So is the spinoff benefit to the commercial launch industry.
Citing an example he is “very proud of,” Secretary Aldridge points to the competition that Space Division conducted in the booster industry for the rocket to launch DSCS satellites, competition in which General Dynamics prevailed with its Atlas II.
“We got an excellent price of less than $40 million a flight,” he says. “We have saved the American taxpayer $100 million on each DSCS flight as a result of the competitive environment and the use of an expendable launcher vs. putting DSCS on the Shuttle.”
The payoff in the commercial space arena should also be huge.
In establishing Titan IV, Atlas II, and Delta II production lines, “We now have a large booster, a medium booster, and a small booster at very inexpensive prices that can also compete in the commercial industry for launching satellites,” Mr. Aldridge notes.
“We needed those boosters for national security, and we gave the industry the production base for them. So now the launch industry can go out and sell the boosters to the commercial satellite builders who in turn have a stable of launch vehicles they can go to.”
Secretary Aldridge has high hopes that the USAF-NASA Advanced Launch System (ALS) technology program will contribute to the upgrading of contemporary boosters over the years ahead and will result in “a family of launch vehicles” well-suited for future military and civil space operations.
The ALS program was begun as part of USAF’s space-recovery program two years ago. In the beginning, it was aimed at coming up with a heavy-lilt rocket beyond the class of the Soviet Energia booster and of the old, out-of-service US Saturn booster that was used in NASA’s Apollo program. The ALS program has broadened, but its main purpose is the same.
“With the ALS program leading to that ultimate heavy lifter, we are building technologies that can be spun off into existing boosters,” Mr. Aldridge says. And this, he adds, will be extremely important to the Air Force in “getting to space cheaply and reliably, which is our main job.”
“We had been spending far too much for spacelaunch vehicles,” he declares.
Looking to the Future
As a result of the ALS project, Secretary Aldridge says, “We will be able to apply new engines, new avionics, new structures, new fuels, and new checkout procedures to our Deltas and Titans and Atlases and everything else, to upgrade them. At the same time, we’ll be reducing the lead time on building the new heavy lifter once there is a requirement for it.”
Such a requirement is expected to arise in connection with the 1990s deployment of the US Space Station and of SDI satellites, presuming those programs pan out.
Given the budgetary bind, they may not. As Secretary Aldridge puts it: “ALS is going to suffer budgetary pressures. So will the National Aerospace Plane. And when you start cutting programs like SD!, the Space Station, and other future space capabilities, the requirements for them start being pushed out in time—the requirements that would draw us into a heavy-lift advanced launch system.”
Secretary Aldridge is concerned that the relentless pressure on the defense budget to be expected for some time to come “will force a lot of tough decisions to be made—and we’ll mortgage the future in trying to protect our near-term capability.
“I worry that pressures within the Air Force are such that we will cut our space technology base.”
A prime concern in this regard is space-based radar: “We aren’t putting enough money into our technology effort for a space-based radar that I know we’ll want some day.”
Air Force Gen. John L. Piotrowski, Commander in Chief of US Space Command and of NORAD, wants space-based radar as soon as he can get it, because he believes it is urgently needed to detect enemy bombers and cruise missiles from on high.
Secretary Aldridge quite agrees, saying: “I support space-based radar. I see it as a spaceborne AWACS. We need that capability. But I just don’t see it in this budget environment.
“When I’m losing TAC fighter wings because of that environment, how can I start a brand-new space-based radar program? Much as I’d like to do it, I just don’t see it happening in the next few years.”
A major thrust in USAF’s program to explore the technology of space-based radar is to “do the radar at an inexpensive price—at a low weight—so we can get it into orbit without having to spend too much money,” the Secretary says.
His concerns about the future of individual systems are the stuff of his largest concern of all when it comes to space—that the Air Force may lose out there altogether if it isn’t careful.
“I’m worried,” Secretary Aldridge says, “about making sure that the Air Force has a goal in mind for space in the future, that we’re on a track to get to that goal, and that we don’t let these budgetary pressures back us away from those things that I believe are really important for the Air Force in space.
“The main reason I’m worried about all this is that I think space is kind of the future of the Air Force.”
What USAF needs, Secretary Aldridge says, is “a corporate commitment” to space operations. Doesn’t it have such a commitment now
“We do,” he replies, “but I think there’s a concern that we may be backing away from that commitment because of budgetary pressures. We’ve had a lot of criticism in the past about our adherence to that commitment.”
Such criticism has come from those who have claimed that the Air Force was not “stepping up fast enough to ASAT [antisatellite weapon],” was “pinging at” its GPS and Milstar satellite development programs in its annual budgets, was slighting space-based radar, and was, in general, favoring air-oriented operations and systems over those oriented to space, especially as the latter became more and more expensive.
“It took some time,” says Secretary Aldridge, for the military at large to understand just how valuable space systems had become to all terrestrial operations.
He cites as an example “those who once questioned the value of GPS to the Air Force” because of its great expense and who wanted to forgo the program in favor of alternative solutions, such as better inertial navigation systems on aircraft and missiles.
“But look at GPS now,” Secretary Aldridge says. “Everybody just loves it—the Air Force, the Army, and the Navy. And the only reason we have it is that the Air Force stuck to its guns, to its commitment to the program and to space.
“That’s what we have to keep doing with everything. We will have to cut and slow down a few things, and we can accept that. But let’s keep our goals for space in mind and keep on the track and not kill programs that are vital to our commitment to space.”
The stakes are huge. In Secretary Aldridge’s view, it all comes down to this:
“Our national space program does not need new strategies or onetime space spectaculars. What we need is simple: consistent support of our space program. America has not lost its national-security space leadership, and it does not need to mimic Soviet military space activities.
“We must use space effectively and efficiently to meet our national-security objectives. We have done that in the past, and we will continue to do so into the future. We are on the right path to maintain leadership in our national-security space programs.”