If there was a key takeaway from Friday’s Space Transportation Association luncheon speech by Gary Payton, the deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space programs, it’s that there’s no room for error when launching key military spacecraft. “We’re at the point now where our programs are so critical to the warfighter that we cannot afford a launch failure,” he said. Payton noted in particular four “first of their kind” spacecraft are scheduled for launch this year: the first GPS Block 2F satellite, the first Space Based Surveillance System (SBSS) satellite, the first Advanced EHF communications satellite, and ORS-1, the first Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) operational satellite. “So I need four good launch vehicles,” he said.
That means no cutting corners on launch costs. “I am paying extra for mission assurance on all of our launch vehicles, but to me that’s great,” he said. “I would love to save $10 million on a launch, but if it costs me—if that launch vehicle fails and I splash a $2-billion satellite—then I’ve been pushing on the wrong end of the lever.” He continued: “Launch reliability is my top priority. Our constellations for any of our missions cannot tolerate a launch failure.”
However, he said he’s still concerned about launch costs and looking for ways to reduce them without affecting reliability. NASA’s plans are having a ripple effect, he said, but it’s not all due to NASA’s current plans to cancel Constellation. He said he started to see price increases for engines last summer as production of the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) wound down with the impending retirement of the shuttle. “We’ve known that for many, many months and we’ve been working with independent cost estimators and ULA, United Launch Alliance, to mitigate those predicted cost increases.” One possibility would be to do a bulk buy of vehicles, something he said that would require the ability to do a multi-year procurement.
He also discussed the impact to the solid rocket motor industrial base caused by the shuttle’s retirement and plans to cancel Ares. The bigger impact of that, he said, is on the Minuteman and Trident ballistic missiles, and not the strap-on motors used by EELVs. Still, he said, “we very intelligently have to walk down the path of the potential reduction in the solid rocket motor industrial base.” He said he had met just earlier in the week with NASA administrator Charles Bolden to discuss “how the Air Force, NRO, and NASA will work together as the future unfolds” with respect to the industrial base and other issues.