By Maj. Christina Hoggatt
Air Force Space Command Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — The Air Force Space Command commander spoke to the critical aspects of space launch, new technologies in launch operations and the long range vision for the launch mission during his speech at the 15th Annual Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 16 in Washington.
General William Shelton addressed an audience of fellow space-focused members of the Department of Defense, FAA, and NASA, along with industry partners and foreign nationals, on the future of space transportation.
The general pointed out current launch capabilities require an immense amount of energy and are very costly; however, the Air Force continues to look at more efficient space transportation through engine design and purchasing improvements.
“With the current state of our propulsion technology, there are many simultaneous near-miracles required in that controlled explosion to get that huge rocket off the ground and get that payload into orbit,” General Shelton said. “Just to get it to the right altitude — just to overcome gravity enough to be at a typical Low Earth Orbit altitude — it takes about 900 gigajoules of energy.”
Comparing the amount of energy in a gallon of gasoline and how that energy fuels the average car, it turns out 900 gigajoules of energy would take that car almost 17,000 miles or two-thirds of the way around the globe.
The general added that the energy requirement to maintain the correct orbital rotation is even larger, without taking into consideration energy required to accelerate the booster and fuel mass. He emphasized the physics working against every launch such as gravity, atmospheric drag and structural mass make space launch incredibly difficult, which is why launches are still celebrated.
However, he also pointed out that changes are needed.
“There are some technological breakthroughs we desperately need if we hope to get better in space launch,” General Shelton said. “Far and away the most important of these is propulsion.”
The AFSPC commander highlighted many of the engine designs currently in use are old and costly.
“Rocket engines are the mainstays of spaceflight,” he said. “And quite honestly, there hasn’t been a fundamental breakthrough in rocket technology in decades. It’s the cost of launch, based largely on the cost of these old-design, hand-tweaked engines that also drives the way we currently do the satellite business.
He stated AFSPC is working toward a design of a new upper stage engine that would be cheaper to manufacture.
“It should also have increased performance margins so we can reduce some of our mission assurance concerns based on operating our current engines so near their red-lines,” General Shelton said. “Regardless of how we get there — non-proprietary government-developed engines or industry designs or some combination of those two — if we can get the costs down significantly through engine improvements it will open up space for so many more uses.”
General Shelton also discussed the procurement of boosters to potentially reduce costs. He said AFSPC is working with United Launch Alliance to order economically advantageous quantitiesof parts.
“By purchasing economic order quantities of boosters, we will allow ULA to order economically advantageous quantities of parts from all levels of their supply chain,” the commander said. “This will lead to parts and raw materials at much lower rates, which will be reflected in a lower price structure for the booster. We expect that decreased risk will contribute to lower prices and should produce considerable savings over many, many years.”
According to the general, the cost savings won’t only benefit the Air Force, but other organizations like the National Reconnaissance Office and NASA, as well as commercial users who use these common booster cores will benefit from these supply chain improvements.
General Shelton also pointed out the need of interagency collaboration as well as partnerships with industry and education, stating the National Space Policy directs all participants within the space launch business to work jointly in order to improve capabilities.
“It’s obvious that it’s in the interest of all our agencies to collaborate on any changes we are going to make to existing architecture, concepts of operation or policy,” General Shelton said. “We’ll work together to eliminate duplication of effort, increase standardization, eliminating outdated and unnecessary equipment along the way.
“But perhaps the most important way we’re cooperating is in the field of space situational awareness,” he continued. “Space situational awareness is a key enabler to all space missions, including the launch business, not only for AFSPC, NRO, and NASA missions, but for missions controlled by all the world’s nations.”