Most of the recent media attention surrounding the nation's space program has focused on Thursday's planned launch of Discovery, the first space shuttle to head into space since the ill-fated Challenger flight in January, 1986.
But a series of less-publicized, unmanned rocket launches is playing an equally important role in the return to space, according to Air Force Secretary Edward C. Aldridge, who is directing an Air Force program to develop a new generation of expendable launch vehicles, or ELVs.
If successful, the unmanned rockets now being developed will nearly eliminate the military's dependence on the space shuttle, which had been expected to carry nearly all military and commercial satellites into space.
The ELVs also marked the end of a decidedly bleak period for the nation's rocket manufacturers. Two years ago, for example, General Dynamic's Space Systems Division had just one firm order remaining for the Atlas rocket that had accumulated more than 400 successful launches since 1957. "We were finishing up what the government had ordered but then we were going to be out of the rocket-building business," said Jack Isabel, a General Dynamics spokesman.
Old Plant Refurbished
After government orders dried up, General Dynamics decided to refurbish the old Atlas plant in San Diego in order to become a more competitive player in the slowly developing commercial rocket market.
Two years ago, a dearth of firm government orders was casting an equally dark shadow over McDonnell Douglas' Huntington Beach-based Astronautics division, which had produced more than 150 Delta rockets since the early 1960s. "Delta stopped production in August, 1984," according to spokesman Tom Williams. "We were getting ready to get out of the Delta business."
The future was a brighter--but not totally secure--for Martin Marietta's Astronautics group, which had manufactured more than 400 Titan rockets since the late 1950s. Although Martin Marietta's assembly line never shut down, "if we had not received (a 1985 order for the new Titan 4 rocket) we could have gotten to that point," according to a spokeswoman.
Production of Atlas, Delta and Titan, long America's space workhorses, had nearly ground to a halt because of a 1970s-era decision that cast the space shuttle as the nation's launch vehicle of choice. The revolutionary shuttle was expected to easily accommodate all future military and commercial cargoes.
Consequently, General Dynamics, Martin Marietta and McDonnell Douglas began to throttle back on production of the rockets that had been the mainstay of the nation's space program since the 1950s. No plants ever closed, but employees were gradually being transferred to other projects, according to company spokesmen.
New Lease on Life
ELVs won a new lease on life after the Challenger disaster and the explosions that destroyed a pair of unmanned Titan rockets in 1985 and 1986.
Although it remains uncertain how large the commercial rocket market will grow, the U. S. military has, since late 1985, budgeted $11 billion for more than 100 ELVs.
Although the wide-ranging ELV program has been overshadowed by preparations for the Discovery launch, manufacturers seem to be on track toward developing the next generation of expandable rockets:
- An Atlas-E rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Saturday, successfully carrying a weather satellite into orbit.
- On Sept. 5, a Titan 2 rocket successfully lifted off from Vandenberg, reportedly carrying several Navy surveillance satellites.
- The Air Force on Sept. 2 launched a Titan 34-D rocket from Vandenberg. However, the rocket evidently failed to place a classified military satellite into the correct orbit.
- Martin Marietta is readying a powerful, 20-story Titan 4 for a late 1988 launch at Cape Canaveral. A General Dynamics Space Systems Division Centaur will supply the second stage for the Titan 4.
Besides developing a new generation of ELVs, the nation's manufacturers are playing more important roles in launches. They have developed wide-ranging "launch service" packages that are reducing the role formerly played by NASA. And U. S. rocket manufacturers also are scurrying to position themselves for a more competitive market.
General Dynamics Space Systems Division, for example, decided to build 18 "white-tail" Atlas rockets, launch vehicles not backed by firm orders. General Dynamics already has sold four of the rockets and won options for four. The Air Force since has ordered 11 Atlas rockets and General Dynamics is developing a more powerful Atlas II rocket.
McDonnell Douglas' Delta program won a new lease on life in September, 1986, when NASA ordered three rockets. The Air Force subsequently ordered 14 more Deltas, but McDonnell Douglas also has bagged seven firm commercial orders for its rocket.
Martin Marietta has three commercial orders for Titan 3 rockets, the first of which will blast off from Cape Canaveral in 1989. Martin Marietta is reworking 14 Titan ICBMs that will haul military cargoes into space, and the government has placed 23 orders for the powerful Titan 4, according to a spokeswoman.
But, as U. S. manufacturers develop new generations of their Atlas, Delta and Titan rockets, they are facing increased pressure from foreign competitors.
Europe's Arianespace organization on Sept. 9 launched a rocket that carried telecommunications satellites into orbit for GTE Spacenet Corp. and the Satellite Transponder Leasing Corp. The GTE satellite subsequently tumbled into the wrong orbit, but Arianespace, has successfully launched 25 Ariane rockets and the European consortium has orders to launch 39 more satellites.
Future foreign competition--including launch vehicles produced in Europe, China and Russia--is likely to become even more heated because the United States "has not developed a new rocket engine in over 15 years and the space program has followed rather than led other industrial sectors in the development and use of new light-weight, high-strength materials and automation and robotics," according to a recent U. S. Office of Technology Assessment report.
To answer foreign competition and the need for dramatically lower launch costs, the Air Force and NASA recently acknowledged the need for a new generation of expendable rockets. Their proposed advanced launch system, or ALS, would "use new, advanced materials, new operational techniques and advanced manufacturing technologies" to create what the technology office described as a "space truck" that would cheaply and reliably carry cargo into space.
The ALS would send a payload into space for $300 a pound, a drastic reduction from the current $3,000 to $6,000-a-pound cost, according to the technology office report. However, even with aggressive funding by Congress, which industry observers described as far from certain, the ALS would not be available until "around the end of this century," according to the report.
Until a new rocket is developed, the U. S. will rely upon new generations of its three proven rockets:
- General Dynamics' Atlas, which at first flew in 1957, since has completed more than 400 flights, including some flights with a second-stage Centaur rocket on top. The contractor has stretched fuel tanks and boosted Atlas' power to accommodate larger payloads.
- McDonnell Douglas' Delta rocket has carried 170 spacecraft into orbit as of June, 1988. McDonnell Douglas will introduce its more powerful Delta II in 1989.
- Production of the Martin Marietta Titan rocket family, which has produced more than 400 successful launches since 1959, will continue "well into the 1990s, if not beyond," according to a company spokeswoman.
Fortunately, manufacturers "possess the technology to improve the capabilities of existing launch vehicles and facilities through evolutionary modifications," according to the Office of Technology Assessment. Past advances--including stretched fuel tanks, increased thrust, improved avionics and heavier payloads--also have been more evolutionary than revolutionary.
In automotive terms, a modern Atlas rocket is not unlike "a '55 Chevy that's got a 1970 motor and some 1980 technology in it," according to John Gibb, manager of NASA's Launch Vehicle Project Office at Lewis Research Center in Cleveland.
The United States has improved on its tried-and-true designs--Atlas, Titan and Delta each evolved from 1950s-era intercontinental and intermediate ballistic missile programs--because they have been "adequate to meet the needs of the payload community," Gibb said.
But ALS is expected to produce a rocket that has been designed on a "clean sheet of paper," according to an Air Force spokesman.
The Air Force last year awarded $5 million in contracts to seven contractors for conceptual design work on a new rocket. General Dynamics, Boeing Aerospace and a team consisting of Martin Marietta's Denver Aerospace division and McDonnell Douglas Astronautics recently won an as-yet undetermined amount of money for further design work.
The ALS program is expected to produce a highly dependable rocket that combines expendable and reusable modules. Engines might be updated versions of existing engines or radically different engines and motors. Boeing, for example, is considering a design that would keep a rocket flying, not unlike one of its airliners, should an engine fail, according to Suffia.
ALS also is expected to "capitalize on advanced materials and manufacturing and launch processing technologies" that will cut the cost of building rockets.
Development of the new generation rocket will take time and money.
"Many of the goals for ALS are reminiscent of goals set in the early 1970s for the Space Shuttle regarding its lift capabilities, turnaround and cost," according to the technology office report. "The greatest impediment to the ALS program will be the high cost of developing the vehicle and building new facilities to manufacture and launch it."
Consequently, existing rocket production and launch facilities will not soon be eliminated. "They're too valuable of a resource to just run over them with a bulldozer," Gibb said. "We've got the launch-pad capabilities to launch these (rockets), and their track record is such that it's a heck of lot cheaper to fly birds that you've got than to build new ones."