FIGURE 1.1 Diagram of flight path of reusable booster with an expendable upper stage. Following separation, the first stage is rotated approximately 180 degrees as part of the rocketback return-to-launch-site maneuver. SOURCE: Air Force Research Laboratory, “AFRL Portfolio: Responsive and Reusable Boost System (RBS),” presentation to the committee, February 17, 2012. Distribution A: Approved for Public Release.
Government Accountability Office (GAO)4 recently released a study of the EELV situation for the U.S. Congress. The study said that “domestic commercial launch providers are emerging that may satisfy some of [the Department of Defense’s] EELV-class launch vehicle needs. According to DOD officials, the newer providers have not yet demonstrated adequate reliability to provide launches for critical satellites, but may be poised in the future to compete with the current sole-source EELV provider.” The GAO report also indicated that DOD and the National Reconnaissance Office plan to spend about $3 billion per year for EELV launches over the 2013 to 2017 time frame.
The Falcon 9 made by SpaceX is one of the more mature options as it has successfully flown three times, most recently delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). In addition, SpaceX has entered more than 20 contracts to launch commercial satellites (COMSATs) and has a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for more ISS cargo delivery missions. A brief review indicated that implementation of higher performance in-space propulsion or disaggregation of payloads would enable the Falcon 9 to deliver all or most of the national security payloads shown in Table 1.1. The reliability of the vehicle and its associated launch costs for Air Force payloads are not established, although it is noted that SpaceX has entered a fixed-price contract with NASA for 12 cargo missions to the ISS for $1.6 billion.5 The 2011 price for a Falcon 9 launch of a commercial COMSAT is $54 million.6 Perhaps more important, commercial launchers (1) could eliminate or greatly mitigate requirements for a new Air Force launcher development; (2) might be implemented much sooner than RBS; and (3) would have a large, intensively competitive customer base.
4 U.S. Government Accountability Office, Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, GAO-11-641, U.S. GAO, Washington, D.C., September 2011, p. 9.
5The Economist, “Keep on truckin,” Science and Technology, pp. 77-78, May 15, 2012.