Hearing Charter: "Space Planes and X-Vehicles", House Subcommittee on Space & Aeronautics

Status Report From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2001


"Space Planes and X-Vehicles"

Thursday October 11, 2001
2:00 – 4:00 pm
Room 2318 Rayburn House Office Building

1. Purpose

The hearing will examine spaceplane technologies and the opportunities they would create for low Earth orbit civil, military, and commercial space-based applications. Witnesses will assess the need for these technologies as well as current plans to develop commercial, civil, and military space planes.

The panel will include:

Dr. Steve Lambakis is a national security and international affairs analyst specializing in space power and policy studies at the National Institute for Public Policy. He is the author of the recent book, On the Edge of Earth: The Future of American Space Power.

Mr. Peter Huessy is president of PRH & Company, a defense-consulting firm. He is also a senior defense associate at the National Defense University Foundation, where his areas of specialty include nuclear weapons, missile defense, space, terrorism, and the congressional role in U.S. defense and foreign policy.

Mr. Mitch Clapp is an aerospace engineer and former Air Force officer who is CEO of Pioneer Rocket Company.

Amb. Henry Cooper is Chairman of High Frontier and Applied Research Associates. He is also Visiting Fellow to the Heritage Foundation and a former Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) director, 1990-1993. Amb. Cooper was appointed by Ronald Reagan as Chief U.S. Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Former Soviet Union (1985-1989)

2. Background

Since the beginning of the space age, people have traditionally sent payloads to orbit with an expendable launch vehicle (ELV). The process of launching an ELV involves discarding stages during the rocket's ascent into space. The last stage carries either a crew or payload/cargo capsule. These stages eventually fall back to Earth and usually burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. (Crew capsules contain heat shields and other re-entry systems that enable them and their occupants to safely return to Earth.) Thus, an expendable rocket is used only once. Because each rocket launch requires the creation of a new launch vehicle, ELVs are an inefficient means of delivering payloads to space.

Engineers have long thought they could reduce the cost of access to space by developing a reusable launch vehicle (RLV), which would operate more like an airplane. After delivering its payload to orbit, an RLV would return to Earth, where it could be refueled and launched again. Thus, one would not incur the cost of building a new launch vehicle every time a payload was launched.

The Space Shuttle became the first reusable launch vehicle to provide a reliable means of transporting people and cargo to and from space. At the time of its deployment in the early 1980's the Space Shuttle was expected to revolutionize space activities associated with civil space science and applications and national defense missions. Unfortunately, the Shuttle has yet to satisfy expectations of providing low-cost, routine access to space.

By the late 1980s, however, the Department of Defense's Strategic Defense Initiative Office (later known as the Ballistic Missile Defense Office or BMDO) determined that neither the Shuttle nor the existing fleet of ELVs would meet its needs. The DoD needed a reusable launch capability that was affordable and responsive to flexible launch schedules. BMDO renewed its own efforts to develop a low-cost, reusable launch vehicle that would meet military requirements.

In 1994, the Clinton Administration released its National Space Transportation Policy establishing guidelines for rationalizing the federal research investment and revitalizing the nation's space transportation capabilities. The Policy established NASA as the lead agency for technology development and for the demonstration of second-generation (i.e., a post-Shuttle) reusable space transportation systems. The Department of Defense became responsible for improving the existing U.S. expendable launch vehicle (ELV) fleet. BMDO transferred the DC-X (an experimental RLV concept) to NASA, and DOD focused its space launch activities on incrementally improving expendable launch vehicles, which it relied to place its unmanned payloads into space.

Government Pathfinder/X-Vehicle Programs

NASA's RLV technology development programs over the past decade have included experimental flight projects intended to demonstrate operational capabilities (X-33, X-34, X-40A, and X-37). The X-33 was intended to demonstrate technologies and operational concepts with the goal of reducing space transportation costs to one tenth of their current level. The Boeing Co. and the Air Force entered into a cooperative arrangement to develop a Space Maneuver Vehicle, or X-40A, as part of a military space plane program.[1]  This program involved development of a reusable spacecraft that could be launched on a variety of launch vehicles, remain in orbit while performing military or civilian missions, and then return to Earth. Finally, the Pathfinder X-37 Program includes the development of the X-37 in-space flight demonstrator, which is the first experimental vehicle to be flown in both orbital and reentry environments. Earlier this year, NASA decided to cancel the X-33 and X-34 Programs, because NASA had concluded that these projects would not support its on-going space transportation initiative: the Space Launch Initiative (SLI)/2nd Generation RLV Program. As a result, the X-37 remains the only viable NASA X-vehicle demonstrator available to prove on-orbit operational capabilities. The pending cancellation of the X-37 would ensure the end of a near-term means to demonstrate in-space transportation capabilities. As such, NASA is planning to move forward with demonstration flights involving the X-37.

The Air Force decided to discontinue its support of the X-37 beyond FY2001. This decision increases the likelihood that these opportunities will not be realized. The Air Force claims the X-37 Program is not specifically designed to demonstrate military technologies while on-orbit. Industry claims, however, that the X-37 is a vital program, because of its importance in demonstrating in-space transportation operational capabilities. The X-37 may be viewed, therefore, as an initial and critical step within a long-term RLV technology development strategy for demonstrating how to operate a reusable rocket system in flight. The knowledge gained in such an undertaking would prove valuable in supporting both military and civilian space operations.

Commercial Benefits of a Space Plane

Development of a space plane technology that provided affordable space access and in-space maneuverability could benefit the commercial and civil sectors in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago. The ability to service satellites while in space may fundamentally change how satellites are designed and manufactured. On-orbit satellite servicing may permit streamlining of manufacturing processes. For example, modular components for accommodating rapid technology upgrades may become the standard design for satellites in the field. Other space services made possible by the development of a space plane may include retrieval of satellites from their operating orbit, rapid passenger and package delivery service to many points on the globe, and tourism. Maneuverability in space would also afford space assets the capability to make orbital plane changes. Satellite operators would be free to access a wide range of orbits, thereby increasing the flexibility and efficiency of scientific space missions.

Military Applications of Space Plane Technology

DoD has recently begun exploring space capabilities that can contribute to the transformation of the roles and function of the U.S. military in the 21st Century. Such studies view space planes as valuable for supporting new military capabilities. For example, the means to launch "operationally useful satellites" on demand affords the military greater flexibility in areas like space surveillance, satellite repositioning, and power projection. The ability to perform in-space transportation would enable the U.S. to gain the strategic high ground and protect vital space assets, remove the threat posed by orbiting space debris, make changes in satellite position at will. Additionally, space planes have the potential to perform on-demand reconnaissance, fly over any location from the continental United States, maximize data collection, and complement air expeditionary forces by providing a rapid response to threats worldwide. The SMV also could allow for the recovery and reuse of critical payloads with relative cost savings. An SMV is only possible, however, if the appropriate technologies are demonstrated.

3. Issues

Space launch and space operations have the potential to support a wide range of space interests, including commercial, civil, intelligence, international, and military sectors. Improving the interoperability among these sectors hinges on the development and deployment of new operational capabilities. Reusable launch vehicles or spaceplanes provide the necessary technical capability for rapid and affordable access to space and maneuverability in space. Space missions of those government agencies, such as NASA and the Air Force, may benefit from past successes involving previous X-vehicle programs. NASA and the Air Force should work in concert in developing the launch infrastructure necessary for insuring the success of the X-37, or other programs that share similar goals. The Air Force does plan to develop "roadmaps" for identifying future military space flight needs. However, it is important to understand that the initial step in the path towards an operational spaceplane is a space launch demonstration.

4. Questions

1) How do space-based operations specifically support U.S. deterrence strategy?

2) What progress have foreign space-faring countries made in the area of in-space transportation?

3) What are the commercial applications of a space-maneuvering vehicle?

4) What are the limitations involving Space Shuttle support of space operations?

5) What are the prospects of the private sector funding development of an SMV?


Military Sector
Space Operations W/O Spaceplane W/Spaceplane Comments
Space Control High risk of losing critical space assets On-demand capabilities; timely and responsive U.S. deterrence strategy transformed
On-Demand Global Surveillance, Recon, and Targeting System (Global Reach) Establishing military staging areas on foreign soil; time needed to marshal forces A precise and highly survivable ISR targeting system w/ a rapidly deployable global conventional precision-strike deterrent Projecting force from within CONUS
Satellite Servicing and movement Maintaining on-orbit spears Retrieving space assets for repair while on-orbit Development of reusable satellite bus may result from this type of space operations capability
Orbital Debris Reduction Debris smaller than 10cm difficult to track with radar to employ an avoidance strategy Possible to clear-out large space debris (i.e., spent rocket stages & failed spacecraft) Further de-orbiting space debris (1-10 cm) may require a space-based laser
Commercial/Civil Sector
Space Operations W/O Spaceplane W/Spaceplane Comments
Space Servicing and Transfer Warehousing spares in space Satellites designed for shorter lifetimes and rapid technology upgrades Satellite operators keeping pace w/consumer-driven technology demands
Satellite Maneuver Capability Satellite fixed in one location  Satellite operators free move from orbital plane to orbital plane (LEO, MEO, and GEO) Provides affordable and flexible space access "anytime, anywhere"
Space Rescue and Logistics Support Dependence on foreign launch capabilities and scheduled Space Shuttle flights Timely and rapid delivery/retrieval of people and cargo in support of manned space presence Capability not driven by market economics
Orbital Debris Removal Problem currently addressed by regulation and additional shielding on LEO systems Makes feasible development of actual debris collection systems As future space operations increase this problem may be expected to grow.

[1] Boeing also had been working with the Air Force to develop a Space Maneuver Vehicle, or X-40A, as part of a "military spaceplane" program for which Congress had added $10 million and $20 million in the DoD budget in FY1998 and FY1999 budget, respectively. Most recently, the X-40A activities have been merged with the X-37, where NASA, the Air Force, and Boeing share the cost of the program evenly.

[2]Sources: Complied by staff from various sources.

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