28 Aug 05. ANDY PASZTOR of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL reported that, if the Pentagon has its way, local battlefield commanders will be able to launch their own mini-satellites in a matter of hours to benefit from high-tech surveillance and communications.
After spending decades in pursuit of increasingly complex and costly space projects that have often run over budget or faced technical snafus, the Pentagon is looking to slash the size and price tag of future satellites and rockets.
Military planners and lawmakers are devoting more attention and funding to developing simpler, smaller satellites projected to cost between $15 million and $30 million apiece, compared with current versions costing several hundred million dollars. They’ll be blasted into a low orbit by a new class of slimmed-down rockets, using mobile launchers and requiring only days or even a few hours of advance warning before liftoff. Today’s mammoth boosters, by contrast, often entail scheduling years in advance and spending months preparing them for flight from elaborate, fixed launching pads.
Championed by Gen. John Jumper, the departing Air Force chief of staff, these “operationally responsive space” projects envision a fundamental rethinking of how the military can use space assets in future conflicts. Local commanders, for instance, may have the option of ordering up a diminutive satellite — perhaps weighing less than 1,000 pounds and therefore easily shuttled around the battlefield — to provide targeted surveillance of nearby enemy movements over a critical few weeks or months.
For major U.S. aerospace contractors, beset by a string of high-profile cost overruns and embarrassing technical problems affecting some of the largest, most ambitious satellites, the shift means reduced revenue but also reduced outlay. Furthermore, the anticipated changes are likely to open the door to competition from a bevy of entrepreneurs and industry newcomers, not to mention ripples of innovation potentially affecting space tourism or other commercial endeavors.
Instead of traditional space investments, a reshaped military must “think of a new way of doing business” that stresses versatility and affordability, says Gen. Jumper.
Given the budget constraints imposed by the war in Iraq, “if it’s not affordable, it’s not responsive,” says Gen. Daniel Leaf, vice commander of the Air Force Space Command. No longer can the military afford to “think in terms of years” for deploying new satellites, he stresses. “We certainly can’t think in decades.”
The engineering and institutional challenges remain formidable. Space Exploration Technologies Corp., a fledgling El Segundo, Calif., company founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, is on the leading edge of small-booster development. Its long-term goal is to launch a roughly 1,000-pound satellite for well under $10 million a flight. But the company is nearly two years late in conducting the maiden launch of its partially reusable Falcon 1 rocket, and recently it has been forced to shift to a new launch site in the Pacific. At the same time, the Air Force has been slow in moving from broad policy pronouncements to issuing detailed requirements necessary before military officials can award additional contracts.
The new breed of spacecraft can’t replace more elaborate satellites, designed to intercept communications and provide high-resolution images over a broader area. Those jobs require spacecraft with much larger sensors, heavier antennas and higher orbits.
As envisioned, this responsive-space push would involve small tactical satellites lasting a year or two in specially designed orbits, and focused on particular geographical areas. The satellites would be able to track troop movements, augment communication links and, in extreme cases, quickly replace larger satellites with malfunctions or even damage from hostile acts.
Such launches could end up costing less than $10 million each, compared with as m