We Can’t Make Real Launches with an Imaginary Rocket

John  Mosbey
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Posted: Apr 21, 2016 12:30 PM
We Can’t Make Real Launches with an Imaginary Rocket

There is an old adage among overworked and overstressed staffers (both congressional and military) that, “if you put off everything to the last minute, you can do everything in a minute.”  This adage is actually a commentary on workloads and the pressure they produce, not about the truth of completing the tasks at hand.

Now Congress seems to be attempting to do everything in a minute by applying money in an attempt to make up for lost time.  Specifically, Congress and multiple administrations should have begun – decades ago – seriously planning for replacement and deployment of the US Space Shuttle, and also planning for a pioneering effort to design, build, test, certify and deploy a heavy lift American rocket engine. 

Unfortunately, they did not.

When it comes to our missile and space programs, merely throwing money, even lots of money, right now in the vain hope of making an unrealistic timetable real will not overcome the laws of inertia, physics or rocketry. 

Fast forward to now.  Today, we need Russian engines to get our astronauts into space, and we need a unique, highly capable Russian rocket engine – called the RD-180 – to get our most precious heavy lift payloads into proper orbits, using the American Atlas V rocket.  The first problem, the problem of putting things off, will – over future decades – begin to be ameliorated by late but capable planning.  The second problem, the problem of what we need right now, is susceptible to the same solution, but not without some real hard-headed planning and support by the US Government.

Part of the planning, support, and action needed for both the current and future problems includes a “square in the eye” look at reality.  We must (and the word is “must” not “should”) maintain the leading edge in space exploration and innovation.  We need to ask ourselves if our actions over the past decade have really allowed us to maintain that edge.  That said, America should not and cannot try to hurry the critical process of getting a safe, reliable, well-designed, methodically developed, exhaustively tested, properly certified (no shortcut waivers) and deployed American heavy lift rocket engine.  Our most precious and irreplaceable cargos – satellites of special importance supporting vital US national security priorities and future space exploration – depend on that process being thorough. 

That means that we will continue to need the RD-180 engines and the Atlas rockets for the immediate future.  Perhaps we will need it even another decade.  Rushing it out the door of our active inventory is very likely a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. 

So, what is Congress doing?  In a bizarre twist, they seem intent on sweeping or shuffling their missteps under the rug, simultaneously trying to cut off American access to Russian-made engines (which are one-of-a-kind and which presently work well to place American payloads in orbit), while also pretending that they can compel the US Air Force to cover past congressional errors.  In effect, they are now demanding that the US Air Force use a largely non-existent American heavy lift engine that will, in Congress’ view, materialize magically because they say “do it.”

Of course development of a truly American engine should continue - and rapidly.  But, putting heavy high-priority payloads into space requires much more than just a capable engine; it requires a complete, thoroughly reliable, and proven system. The integral operation of the proper engine with all the other myriad of missile subsystems is critical to a platform upon which we can place our future heavy-lift space requirements. 

Discarding a proven system now for the promise of a replacement system whenever runs the risk of forfeiting America’s leading edge to other World Players who are eager, willing, and increasingly able to challenge our long and hard-fought leadership in space.

This approach of sidelining a proven system for the elusive promise of something just as good...but, not available now is not worthy of an informed and effective Congress. They know – or should know – that a heavy lift American rocket engine incorporated into a proven and reliable system remains years or more away.  No matter whom they want to see win the competition for such an engine, or who they want to block from support, this just will not happen within a timeframe that does not risk our current ability to deploy heavy payloads into space. 

The unfortunate reality is that research, design, testing and successful deployment of complex aerospace platforms dedicated to national defense do not come to life overnight – any student of modern defense acquisition and procurement knows this. 

How much clearer does it need to be than words from the US Air Force Secretary – and credible outside experts – who last month indicated it cannot be done, as well as should not be done and that the ill-advised attempt will waste billions.  The Wall Street Journal has reported that an independent panel drew conclusions that “stressed that a slower schedule for deploying a domestic replacement, stretching through 2025, would be less risky and in the end probably save taxpayers billions of dollars.” 

So, when one sees legislation from both chambers of Congress, suggesting that something that will take several years (perhaps approaching a decade - hopefully not more) must be done in a couple of years, certain questions must be asked.  At a cost some now put north of five billion dollars over projections, what the heck is going on?  Why are elected Congressional leaders in a hasty rush to block use of the RD-180 rocket engines, the engines we have so successfully used for so many years,  and to replace them by 2019?  The answer is because they believe the false adage that we can put off everything to the last minute and still do everything in a minute.  They have the money (and seem to think it comes in endless supply) and they wrongly think that, with enough money, they can make time stand still.  They can’t. 

Senator Richard Shelby has suggested that this scheme is designed to help one rocket company over another, and said so in another Wall Street Journal piece on February 22, 2016.  Senator John McCain claims it is because the engines are of Russian design and their use aids and abets the Putin regime.  But whatever the reasoning, it is hurting the American taxpayer – and could imperil our country’s national security. 

A simple recommendation emerges:  Let’s stop these preoccupied folks in Congress from crossing the American taxpayer and look anew at the reality.  Let’s continue to get our satellites into orbit safely and reliably on the Atlas V’s with RD-180 engines, and let’s continue to develop a proper, reasoned and methodical march to an American engine that frankly may be even better, within a realistic timeframe.  That, it seems, is the right answer.