Smaller, Quicker, Secret, Robotic: Inside America’s New Space Force

By David Axe
April 4, 2012 | 6:30 am

The first X-37B lands in California in December 2010. Photo: Air Force

The past and future of America’s space arsenal intersected, briefly, in the summer of 2011. For two weeks in July, NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis roughly shared its Earth orbit with the Air Force’s X-37B, a 29-foot-long, highly maneuverable robotic spacecraft that entered service in early 2010 and has been cloaked in secrecy ever since. The X-37 was around 80 miles higher than
the Shuttle, so it’s doubtful the four-person Atlantis crew, conducting the 135th and last Shuttle mission, ever saw the robotic craft. The X-37′s small size — barely a quarter the length of Atlantis — made a sighting even less likely.

Equally striking was the difference in cost between Atlantis and its tiny robotic compatriot. Atlantis cost more than $10 billion to design and build and around $500 million to launch on that one mission. The Boeing-built X-37 mini-shuttle set the taxpayers back an estimated $1 billion for development and construction and just $180 million to send into space. (All cost figures in this story are in today’s dollars.)

‘Small’ is the new watch-word for America’s orbital force. But small doesn’t mean less capable.

There are lots of things Atlantis could do that the X-37 cannot and vice versa, complicating any direct comparison. Both craft were designed to carry scientific and military payloads into orbit: Atlantis, with its school-bus-size cargo bay, emphasized carrying capacity; the X-37, optimized for endurance, has a bay the size of a pickup truck’s bed. Still, it’s almost unheard of for a major government technology to be cheaper than its immediate predecessor. Just ask the Air Force, with its $400 million F-22 fighters replacing F-15s that cost a quarter as much.

Moreover, the X-37B is meant to be launched into space on short notice, remain in orbit for a year or more and return only when its fuel tanks finally run dry. After a few weeks or months of reconditioning, the mini-shuttle is ready to return to space atop an Atlas rocket. With its fleet of two X-37s, the Air Force can keep at least one in orbit at all times.

Because they had to support their human crews, Atlantis and her sister Space Shuttles could spend at most two weeks in orbit before their water and air supplies began to run out.

flights the manned orbiters needed nine months of expensive reconditioning by Rockwell, the main Shuttle contractor. It would have taken a fleet of 18 Space Shuttles to ensure one was in space at all times, but NASA built only five of the massive spacecraft for a total program cost of more than $200 billion.

From huge, slow and expensive to tiny, speedy and cheaper, Atlantis’ and the X-37′s brief proximity last summer represented a passing-of-the-torch for the world’s leading space power. The era of big space missions is fading. “Small” is the new watch-word for America’s orbital force. But as the X-37 and a host of other new spacecraft demonstrate, small doesn’t mean less capable.

Tiny satellites, including relays, orbital cameras and other sensors, aren’t the only “faster-better-cheaper” tech transforming the American space force. So-called “pseudolites” — that is, relatively inexpensive robots, planes and airships operating in the very-high-but-not-quite-orbit upper atmosphere — are rapidly proliferating and taking the place of some old-school satellites.

The “smaller-is-better” space revolution wasn’t inevitable. It resulted from a complex interplay of politics and economics, plus a chain of engineering crises that claimed some careers and even a few lives. What follows is a brief recent history of America’s space force from the end of the Cold War to today, with a glimpse into the future as old spacecraft waste away and smaller, quicker, cheaper and more robotic systems take their place.

Retired Space Shuttles prepare for shipment to museums. Photo: NASA/Frankie Martin

From Dominance to Decay

In the Cold War’s aftermath in the early ’90s, the Air Force, the Navy, NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and America’s other space agencies directly operated, or had access to, 200 or so spacecraft with military capabilities. The U.S. space fleet — including spy, communications, weather and GPS satellites and the four Shuttles — represented roughly half of the world’s entire space arsenal. The Soviet satellite force, 180-strong, accounted for most of the rest.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s subsequent economic woes starved the former Soviet space fleet of funding. The Russian orbital arsenal declined as old satellites failed and burned up and fewer new satellites took their place. At its low point in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Moscow had access to just 80 satellites.

‘The technologically ambitious programs started to collapse.’

Meanwhile, China’s rise as a world power, and space rival to America, had yet to begin. The result was a period of unchallenged orbital dominance for the U.S., which year after year poured no less than $50 billion annually into space gear and operations. The wars in Iraq in 1991 and the Balkans in the mid-to-late ’90s — not to mention the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the second Iraq war between 2003 and 2011 — drove home the importance of spy satellites, space-based radio relays, GPS and other orbital systems.

Soldiers used satellites’ positioning signals to navigate across unfamiliar terrain. Air Force controllers accompanying the ground troops used satellite communications to guide in air strikes. Jet fighters and bombers dropped GPS-guided bombs. Orbital cameras tracked insurgents and terrorists. Soon there were few facets of U.S. warfare that didn’t somehow involve space.

“This created a feedback loop,” Eric Sterner, an analyst with The Marshall Institute in Virginia, tells Danger Room. “Greater experience with space capabilities led to increased demand for them, which led to yet more experience with them.” Responding to growing demand, the U.S. space community initiated a portfolio of ambitious new programs.

New Pentagon-run space programs included: the Space-Based Infrared System for spotting missile launches; the Space Radar for tracking ground targets; and two new communications relays, the Transformational Satellite and the Advanced Extremely High-Frequency (AEHF) satellite. The new spacecraft cost between $2 billion and $4 billion apiece. The military planned to buy dozens of them.

These new versions of old-school sats were huge, complex and powerful. A single, $2 billion AEHF comms sat, 75 feet across when deployed, tipped the scales at seven tons and was estimated to handle 12 times as much information as the older satellite model it replaced.

The NRO started work on upgraded versions of its secretive Keyhole spy sats. The improved Keyholes were even bigger and pricier than the Air Force’s spacecraft. One new Keyhole, launched in 2010, cost $4.5 billion to build and required a 23-story Delta IV rocket to lug it into orbit.

NASA began development of no fewer than three different reusable “space planes” that, like the Space Shuttle, would be capable of launching into orbit or near-orbit and landing like an airplane. These included, in decreasing size order, the X-33, the X-34 and the X-37.

Space ambition was unlimited but time and money weren’t. Almost all of the new orbital gear ran into problems. “Most of the Department of Defense’s large space acquisition programs have collectively experienced billions of dollars in cost increases, stretched schedules and increased technical risks,” the Government Accountability Office reported in 2011. Many of the systems that made it into orbit suffered mechanical problems.

“The technologically ambitious programs started to collapse,” Sterner says. The military canceled the Transformational Satellite and the Space Radar outright. NASA also terminated all its space planes; only the X-37 survived when the Air Force agreed to take over its management and expenses.

The Space Shuttle, the grandfather of Cold War-style orbital systems, suffered the most public and tragic failure when the orbiter Columbia, its wing damaged by a loose chunk of fuel-tank insulation, exploded on re-entry in 2003, killing seven astronauts.

A SBIRS satellite gets checked out before launch. Photo: Air Force

Rock Bottom

Starting in the middle of last decade, the U.S. space force fell into “total disarray,” one space insider tells Danger Room. Satellite programs came in years late and billions over budget. The Space Shuttle was temporarily grounded and its retirement date pegged for 2011 — years before its planned replacement, the Orion capsule built by Lockheed, would be ready. To sustain America’s manned space exploration over the post-Shuttle gap, NASA planned to rent Russian capsules, an unthinkable scenario only a decade prior. Disillusioned senior engineers and managers left the space agencies in droves.

But the military space programs hadn’t hit rock bottom — not yet. Arguably, that dubious milestone came on Jan. 11, 2007, when the Chinese military launched a solid-fueled rocket from the Xichang Space Center. A non-explosive kill vehicle separated from the rocket and struck a defunct Chinese weather satellite, blowing it into a thousand pieces.

The U.S. military used to talk about dominating space. Quickly, it became worried about being dominated.

The Chinese military’s first anti-satellite test shocked America and the world. Satellite-killing weapons were nothing new: in 1985 a U.S. Air Force F-15 firing a prototype rocket shot down a target sat. But the Chinese test heralded the arrival of an unexpected space power. In a decade of rapid development, China ultimately matched the U.S. in total, annual rocket launches: 15. Starting at basically zero, China quickly built up its space force to more than 50 satellites, ranking just below the recovering Russians. Not only could Beijing match big, sophisticated U.S. spacecraft, it could shoot them down, too.

Following the Chinese satellite-kill, the consensus attitude inside the U.S. space force seemed to shift. The thinking in the years right after the Cold War was “how can the U.S. dominate space?” says Brian Weeden, an analyst with the Secure World Foundation in Colorado. Now it was “how can the U.S. ensure that we can continue to use space?” Weeden says. (Emphasis mine.)

One man had foreseen this crisis. Pete Worden, a mischievous Michigander now in his mid-60s, achieved the rank of brigadier general in Air Force Space Command, where he helped oversee satellite development and operations. In the early-’90s he co-led a two-year probe mission costing just $80 million that seemed to confirm the presence of water on the moon.

In the ’90s and early 2000s, Worden argued that smaller, cheaper spacecraft, developed quickly and launched frequently, were the key to a better, more survivable space arsenal — one that could be quickly tailored to counter pop-up threats and had enough self-contained pieces to absorb attacks from a power such as China.

Instead of maintaining today’s arsenal of some 200 pricey, military-grade satellites, U.S. space agencies should operate potentially thousands of smaller, cheaper spacecraft in a vast, constantly shifting constellation, reformers such as Worden claim. Each craft in this new space force should be just good enough to achieve its mission — no better — and sourced from the lowest bidder. No single satellite should be so valuable that the U.S. can’t afford to lose it.

Inspired by Worden’s moon probe, in 1992 NASA initiated the “Faster, Better, Cheaper” program, which aimed to build and deploy spacecraft in just a year or two instead of decades, and at a cost of just a couple hundred million bucks apiece instead of billions. The space agency was still investing heavily in pricey, old-style equipment. But there was enough skepticism within NASA to engender support for Faster, Better, Cheaper.

Between ’92 and ’99, NASA launched 16 Faster, Better, Cheaper missions, including five Mars probes and a couple space telescopes. Ten of the speedy, inexpensive missions succeeded. Six failed owing to engineering errors or communications mix-ups.

Analysts declared Faster, Better, Cheaper a failure. The backlash against the initiative tarnished NASA and Worden. “I’ve been a real zealot for affordability,” Worden said. But U.S. government space culture prized its billion-dollar programs — and Faster, Better, Cheaper’s apparently low success rate seemed to reaffirm this choice. Worden’s preference for small and cheap gear “was not well received by my space colleagues,” he said. The bad blood Worden engendered with his ideas contributed to his departure from the air service in 2004. He eventually joined NASA as the head of Ames Research Center in California.

But Worden had the last laugh. As it became obvious that traditional, billion-dollar programs were even less likely to succeed than Faster, Better, Cheaper, critics began to change their tune. “I would like to respectfully suggest that success-per-dollar is a more meaningful measurement of achievement than success per-attempt,” wrote Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Ward, currently one of the most vocal military advocates of cheaper weaponry.

SpaceShipOne on a test flight. Photo: Scaled

Space Resurgence

The first organizations to internalize the lessons from NASA’s Faster, Better, Cheaper experiment were commercial start-ups vying to steal business from the main space contractors such as Lockheed, Boeing and Rockwell. “Smaller start-ups are sweeping in and decimating the bigger guys,” says the space-industry insider. He’s being a bit hyperbolic, of course. The traditional players still have plenty of work. But the insider is dead-on when he says: “It’s really a great time to be a small, innovative thinker in U.S. aerospace.”

Among these “New Space” firms is Scaled Composites, based in the Mojave Desert. In 2004, Scaled slapped together some rudimentary controls and a rubber-fueled engine inside a custom-made, eggshell-shape composite airframe to produce SpaceShipOne, the world’s first civilian, sub-orbital space plane. Total cost: $25 million, ponied up in part by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

‘It’s really a great time to be a small, innovative thinker in U.S. aerospace.’

In October 2004, SpaceShipOne rocketed more than 60 miles into the upper atmosphere, winning the $10-million Ansari X-Prize and gratifying Worden, who was present at the Mojave airfield for the launch. Today a larger SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry passengers, is in testing. And the Pentagon is officially interested in copying the technology for ultra-high-altitude spying and super-fast resupply and transport missions. More to the point, Scaled has proved that powerful near-space vehicles can be produced quickly and cheaply.

Next in the world of space up-starts: SpaceX, a California rocket-maker founded by Paypal billionaire Elon Musk that aims to break the near-monopoly on military space launches held by United Launch Alliance, a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed. In late 2010 SpaceX launched one of its bare-bones Falcon rockets carrying a small Army satellite and a reusable capsule. When the capsule splashed down in the Pacific, it was the first time in six decades of space exploration that a privately-built spacecraft had left and returned to Earth. The company also has a deal with NASA to resupply the International Space Station starting in April.

SpaceX charges the government around $150 million for a space-station supply run, roughly half as much as its bigger competitors. The main driver behind SpaceX’s low cost is “re-usability.” In other words, almost everything SpaceX builds — rockets, capsules and other gear — is meant to be launched, recovered, reconditioned, and then launched again. (The same philosophy that underpins the X-37.) Traditionally, a lot of space equipment is engineered to be used once then thrown away, adding to the cost of materials and labor. Thanks to SpaceX, those traditions are themselves beginning to be discarded.

With its roots in Worden’s moon probe and NASA’s Faster, Better, Cheaper effort, New Space has made a deep impression on a U.S. space force reeling from its recent failures and China’s rapid rise. In the past few years, the Pentagon in particular has moved to institutionalize Worden’s vision.

In 2007, the Air Force established the Operationally Responsive Space office in New Mexico. Spending just $100 million a year for five years, the new organization built and launched four quick-and-dirty satellites. The office’s biggest successes was ORS-1, a surveillance satellite roughly the size of a compact car, compared to the semi-truck-size orbital spies that were standard before. To keep down costs, the Air Force fitted the new sat with the same camera as the U-2 spy plane. Launched in 2011, ORS-1 began peering down on Afghanistan in January.

Earlier this year the Air Force announced it would be closing the Operationally Responsive Space office. But the shut-down is actually a sign of the organization’s success, as the techniques it pioneered are being adopted across the military space force, the Air Force said.

The flying branch has also embraced air-breathing “pseudolites” — that is, high-altitude drones, planes or even balloons that can perform many of the same functions of satellites but more cheaply. As they can maneuver more quickly, they’re also less vulnerable to Chinese rockets. In recent years EQ-4 Global Hawk drones and even KC-135 tankers fitted with radio relays have begun filling in for multi-billion-dollar communications satellites. Bottom line: the future of the U.S. orbital arsenal lies in “militarily responsive space-launch supplemented with air-breathers,” Larry Wortzel, an adviser to the U.S. government on space issues, tells Danger Room.

Not coincidentally, NASA Ames, where is Worden is director, is a major player in pseudolite research.

Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before his retirement last year, was an enthusiastic supporter of smaller, cheaper space systems. Along with allies in Congress, he argued for the NRO — arguably the most conservative of the space agencies — to adopt Worden’s smaller-is-better philosophy. “We have worked ourselves into a cul-de-sac where we have the most exquisite platforms in the world, and we have one on each coast, or one on in each orbit,” Cartwright said. “We can’t keep going this way.” The NRO resisted at first but has since agreed to at least consider smaller camera-equipped sats similar to ORS-1.

A Delta IV rocket carrying a communications satellite prepares for launch. Photo: Air Force

Our Orbital Future

The small-fast-cheap trend is still a fairly new one. As more agencies attempt a wider range of missions with tiny satellites and reusable robo-shuttles, they could discover that the simple-is-better approach has natural limits. SpaceX originally planned to launch its first space-station resupply mission in February, but was forced to delay the mission until April to give company engineers more time for testing. “Getting these systems to work is hard,” commented John Logsdon, a space expert at George Washington University.

All the same, the emerging consensus around smaller spacecraft could shake up the space industry. Corporate casualties are possible. “I think you will see continued discussion about making satellites faster and cheaper,” Weeden says, “but I am not confident that the military procurement system will be able to make that transition. If it happens, I think it will be because the military is purchasing more commercial off-the-shelf systems from companies that are making this transition.” Goodbye, Boeing and Lockheed. Hello, Scaled and SpaceX.
One thing the future does not include is more astronauts. NASA aims to continue manned missions with the International Space Station, rented Russian capsules and, eventually, a new American capsule-and-rocket combo to replace the retired Space Shuttles. But it seems clear the next generation of NASA astronauts will not perform many, or any, military roles as they have in the past. Heavy-lift rockets, X-37s and other robotic systems will take over where human beings once toiled. “Almost zero manned missions,” is how the space insider characterizes the emerging space force.

The removal of human explorers could come at a cost to the U.S. space force’s PR efforts. A smiling astronaut emerging from a just-landed Space Shuttle makes for much better television than a tiny, battered robot autonomously taxiing down some desert runway. By this token, the coming U.S. orbital arsenal won’t look like much. But that doesn’t mean it won’t dominate America’s rivals in space.

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