Will the Air Force Finally Get a Spaceplane?
If Boeing's X-37 can maneuver politically as well as in space.
- By Ben Iannotta
- Air & Space magazine, January 2003
(Page 4 of 5)
Wolfert is the team leader of a joint NASADepartment of Defense panel convened to determine how the two agencies could cooperate in the future on spaceplane research. “In the past we’ve [demanded] too integrated a vehicle, and all we’ve done is set ourselves up for failure,” says Wolfert.
Kevin Neifert, Boeing’s director for nextgeneration launch systems at the Phantom Works, represented industry’s point of view on the panel, which conducted a 120-day study. He believes the Air Force and NASA could collaborate on spaceplane research. “Everybody needs thermal protection systems; everybody needs autonomous control and advanced propulsion,” he says.
Former Congressional staff member James Muncy isn’t so sure. As a legislative assistant to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and a staff member on the House Science Committee, he watched in frustration as the Air Force’s X-40 developed into NASA’s X-37. “The Air Force lost the operational concept from the program and it became a pure technology demonstrator because that’s what NASA likes to build,” he says.
Will the Air Force get its spaceplane?
The current administration is much friendlier to the idea of a military spaceplane than the former was. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is presiding over what he calls a “transformation” in the armed services, a modernization process that includes developing weapons for space. Rumsfeld, while still in the private sector, led the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, which, in its January 2001 report, warned of a “Space Pearl Harbor” and called for “power projection in, from and through space” and greater funding for these new capabilities. The report seemed to endorse Air Force spending for a Space Maneuver Vehicle as well as a follow-on Space Operations Vehicle, a larger spacecraft that would fly to a location in orbit and dispense a new breed of yet-to-be-developed, conventionally armed bombs.
The Final Battlefield
The concept of space warfare, however, still has opponents both inside and outside the Department of Defense. The NASA-Air Force 120-day-study team has not released its findings because spaceplane proponents fear the multi-billion-dollar estimates alone could sink a proposal for a Space Maneuver Vehicle, according to one Air Force official. Boosting spaceplanes into orbit would be a costly way to wage war. The Space Maneuver Vehicles would lack the powerful engines required to reach orbit, so at least initially they would have to be launched atop expendable rockets, which can cost more than $100 million each. That is more than twice as much as the cost of building a single next-generation Joint Strike Fighter, which would fly hundreds of sorties. The Air Force is an enormous organization with many factions, not all of them marching in lockstep behind Rumsfeld’s flag of transformation, and many leaders believe the risk inherent in spaceflight is still too great.
Outside the Pentagon, space warfare proposals are sure to spark international debate over the 1967 “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.” Better known as the Outer Space Treaty, it bars countries from using the moon or other celestial bodies as military bases. It also bars countries from launching “weapons of mass destruction” from space, though it omits mention of conventional weapons. “There are no treaty limitations here,” Wolfert says.
Joanne Gabrynowicz, a space law scholar at the University of Mississippi, disagrees. The intent of the space treaty was “to ensure space [remains] a stable environment used for peaceful purposes,” she says. “The goal was to not introduce the cold war to space, the horror of weapons floating around in orbit. That’s just as true today.”