The RAND Corporation this week released a report by the National Security Space Launch Requirements Panel that evaluated the status of the EELV program and military launch efforts in general. (The panel was mandated by a provision of the FY05 defense authorization bill.) The panel’s overarching conclusion is that, from a technical standpoint, the two EELV vehicles are excellent and will be able to serve national security needs through at least 2020 (and perhaps “much longer”, in the words of study chairman Forrest McCartney, who present the report’s results at a briefing Wednesday), but that the government needs to start preparing now for some hard decisions about the program in the post-2010 timeframe.
The biggest issue, as one might expect, is whether to downselect to a single EELV family, either the Atlas 5 or the Delta 4, as a cost-saving measure. The panel made no recommendation whether or not to do this, saying the government needs more data on how much it costs to operate the vehicles, as well as their overall reliability. McCartney said no decision on this should be made before 2010. He did add, though, that “assured access”, one of the central mantras of the overall EELV program, doesn’t necessarily require two vehicles, since in many cases payloads are designed to fly on one EELV family or the other, but not both. The formation (or not) of the United Launch Alliance also doesn’t play a factor one way or another; in fact, McCartney said that the panel didn’t take a position on the ULA since it was announced just as the panel started work in May 2005, and they assumed that the ULA would have been approved or rejected by the time they finished their work…
The panel also brought up some secondary issues with the EELV program and assured access, including both vehicle’s reliance on the RL-10 upper-stage engine, domestic production of the RD-180 engine used on the Atlas 5, and the need to develop a heavy variant of the Atlas 5, as well as future needs for heavy variants of both vehicles in general (current manifests show that all but one of the heavy launches planned after about 2013 are for the TSAT communications satellite program, a program that is still in the earliest stages and could thus conceivably be redefined so that it doesn’t need a launch on an EELV Heavy.)
The panel also examined small launch vehicles, in particular the new interest in Operationally Responsive Space (ORS). While the panel supported the development work in progress now, like DARPA’s Falcon program, the panel said it was “too soon” to go into full-scale production of such vehicles, in part because there are still many questions about the requirements of such vehicles, the overall concept of operations, and the types of ORS payloads that would use these vehicles. (Questions that mirror those about ORS in general within some sectors of the military.)