Saturday, 7 July 2012

Captains of the Dark: The Military Budget for Space

The Hubble Space Telescope has produced some amazing images, including the
Hubble Ultra Deep Field, not to mention other data, since it was launched from a space shuttle in 1990, after a seven year delay.

Getting the telescope was an epic struggle that is described on the Wikipedia page. Planning was started in 1970, then financing was denied in 1974. The money was finally granted by Congress in 1978, after intense personal lobbying by astronomers, then the Senate cut the grant in half, which led to redesign and delays. By the time the telescope was ready to go up in 1986, it had cost US$1.175 billion. In 1986, also, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, so the Hubble stayed on Earth, which led to more complications:
 The telescope had to be kept in a clean room, powered up and purged with nitrogen, until a launch could be rescheduled. This costly situation (about $6 million per month) pushed the overall costs of the project even higher. (Wikipedia).
This extra cost mounted until the Hubble was finally launched, a full twenty years after the project began.

The launch was not the end of the Hubble's cost. As Wikipedia notes:
Between 1993 and 2002, four missions repaired, upgraded, and replaced systems on the telescope; a fifth mission was canceled on safety grounds following the Columbia disaster. However, after spirited public discussion, NASA administrator Mike Griffin approved one final servicing mission, completed in 2009. The telescope is now expected to function until at least 2014.
Nevertheless, funding will run out before Hubble's replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, will go up in 2018 or later. Its price tag is much higher. Its Wikipedia page says,
The mission was under review for cancellation by the United States Congress in 2011 after about $3 billion had been spent, and more than 75 percent of its hardware was either in production or undergoing testing. In November 2011, Congress reversed plans to cancel the JWST and instead capped additional funding to complete the project at $8 billion.
In fairness, I should note that the James Webb Telescope is a much bigger project than the Hubble. Its main mirror is 6.5m across instead of the Hubble's 2.4m, for example.

The high cost of a space telescope makes it, practically speaking, irreplaceable. Or so one would think. That is why it is surprising that the National Reconnaisance Office (NRO) called NASA in January 2011 to offer not one but two space telescopes with mirrors the same size as the Hubble's.

The NRO is the security agency of the United States that, since 1961, has been, in its own words, "in charge of designing, building, launching, and maintaining America’s intelligence satellites." Since the satellites that the NRO offered NASA were designed as spy satellites, they are a little different from the Hubble: shorter and with a wider field of view. They were also stripped down before they were offered, "lacking a camera and other accouterments, like solar panels or pointing controls, of a spacecraft." (from the NYT article. Here and here are other articles). For now, they remain in a clean room at ITT Exelis, in Rochester, New York. My imagination, though, pictures them as being stored here, along with other treasures, being worked on by "top men."

After months of study, a new purpose for one of the NRO telescopes has emerged. It is apparently perfect for studying Dark Matter. If it were not for the donation, that would have to wait until at least 2024. The proposal must be accepted by Congress, the Office of Management and Budget and the Academy of Sciences before it can go ahead.

Why were two Hubble-class telescopes created and then declared unnecessary by the NRO? It is as surprising a revelation as the one in Colossus: The Forbin Project when the machine meant to safeguard the Western nations announced "There is another system," meaning a new and previously unsuspected, self-aware defence computer.

The "other system" here is a whole space program that has nothing to do with NASA development or priorities and is largely kept below the public's awareness. If you look at it narrowly, the "other system" is just the NRO, which built the satellites; if you look at it more generally, though, it is the American military and intelligence program for space.

Its budget seems to be larger and less capricious than the civilian space budget. For example, after the Space Shuttle Atlantis completed its last flight  on July 21, 2011, NASA had no rocket to take supplies or crew to space. The International Space Station had to be supplied by Japanese, Russian, and European craft. American astronauts travelled in the Russian Soyuz capsules, launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. It was an embarrassment to a proud space-faring nation.

The military, however, was not inconvenienced by the Shuttle's retirement. The Titan IV rocket lifted "shuttle class" payloads (21,680 kg to Low Earth Orbit) for the Air Force until Lockheed Martin and Boeing developed its successors, the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, under an Air Force program called EELV. When the new rockets began launching in 2005, the more-expensive Titan was retired.

NASA approached resupply of the Space Station through a program called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). I am sure that there was a punner involved in naming it, since the same acronym means "Commercial and Off-the-shelf," which also describes the goal of NASA's COTS program. It achieved part of its goal when a Dragon capsule, designed and built by the private SpaceX company, docked with the Space Station. SpaceX now has a contract to resupply the Space Station.

NASA's original plan to carry people was to develop the Ares I rocket and the Orion capsule. Now that the Ares I has been cancelled, its plan is to modify the Atlas V to carry people. This is far from impossible, since the Atlas V has had an almost perfect safety record. The work is ongoing, with only a $6.7 million grant, to "crew-rate" it to carry people by 2014 or 2015. According to the Wikipedia article, "Other than the addition of the Emergency Detection System, no major changes are expected to the Atlas V rocket, but ground infrastructure modifications are planned." Once the work is complete, it will probably carry the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser space plane and the Boeing CST-100 capsule.

A third member of the military family to go into space--after the NRO and Air Force--is DARPA, the American Defense research agency. It took over the X-37 project from NASA in 2004 and developed this:

The X37 has looks like a baby Space Shuttle, but it has about the same relationship to the Shuttle as a U2 spyplane has to a Predator drone. The X37 is unmanned. According to its Wikipedia page
The spaceplane's first orbital mission, USA-212, was launched on 22 April 2010 using an Atlas V rocket. Its successful return to Earth on 3 December 2010 was the first test of the vehicle's heat shield and hypersonic aerodynamic handling. A second X-37 was launched on 5 March 2011, with the mission designation USA-226; it returned to Earth on 16 June 2012.
In other words, it can work in space for close to a year at a time. We can only guess what it does up there because no-one is telling. 

However, in 2011, Boeing stated that work would begin on a larger model, the X-37C, which could carry 5-7 astronauts. At some point this would collide with the interests of another Boeing project, the CST-100 space capsule, so I would predict that only one of these would see completion.

If we look beyond what NASA does, we see that the United States has never been without a launch capability that could resupply the International Space Station, and that it already has rockets that could, in principle, take astronauts as well. I wonder how much of the country's space capability is in its military labs, bases, and budgets.

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