The X-30 was an example of a program that focused more on technology than on aircraft-like, ultimately leading to its demise. (credit: NASA)
by Mike Snead
The Honorable Newt Gingrich recently penned an op-ed “How to Seize Revolution in Hypersonics and Space.” (Aviation Week Network, June 22, 2018.) Gingrich’s proposal addresses these three areas: a programmatic imperative, a political imperative, and an economic imperative. In this final part of a two-part response, I address the political and economic imperatives.
A political imperative
To boost the prospects of Congress supporting the proposed spaceplane and hypersonics initiative, Gingrich has searched for a way to increase congressional support. In this quest, he is reaching out to the Aerospace States Association to gain their support by inferring that the initiative will enable all states to build spaceports. I believe this inference is impractical to be realized while we are still using conventional chemical propulsion. The primary limitation is the safety of the non-involved public—the people on the ground.
The National Aerospace Plane (X-30) was to be a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) aircraft that would takeoff from a runway and use a combination of airbreathing and rocket power to achieve orbit. Had the X-30 been built, it would likely have had a takeoff weight of over 500 tonnes. Of this takeoff weight, around 90 percent would have been hydrogen and oxygen.
Being a X-plane program, the X-30 would have undertaken a large number of flight tests. While these would have started within established flight test areas in the western states, as the speed increased, the flights would have necessarily covered longer distances where the overflight of populated areas was likely, perhaps unavoidable. (An aircraft flying at hypersonic speeds does not turn quickly.) Flight over land would be necessary to enable the aircraft to abort to airports along the flight path should something happen.
During the early planning of the X-30 flight test program, after the loss of the Challenger, the consequences of a crash were examined. Should the aircraft crash with a significant quantity of propellants onboard, a large explosion could result, especially if the aircraft was still at supersonic or hypersonic speeds. The kinetic energy of the crash would cause an extremely rapid mixing of the fuel and the oxidizer enabling, at least, a deflagration and, quite possibly, an explosion. For the X-30, such a crash may involve hundreds of tons of propellants exploding. We all remember the loss of the Challenger. This was a deflagration, per my understanding, with considerably less energy being released than had the propellants exploded.
For space launches from the coast, launch safety requires that large areas of the ocean surface and adjacent airspace be cleared of vehicles to prevent possible harm to the non-involved public. We use coastal launch sites away from populated areas for this reason. Any operational spaceport will need comparable safety considerations. For existing coastal states, it is unlikely that a new spaceport for achieving orbit would be located close to populated areas. Even then, routine flights to and from space would likely disrupt other routine human activities and commerce in the local area.
For interior states, space launch will require overflight of populated areas within the host state as well as adjoining states. Permission to launch an orbital flight from such sites is, in my view, unlikely to be achieved due to the hazard of a crash. Therefore, for some time, space launch to Earth orbit will probably remain being undertaken from established coastal sites in Florida and California.
Another option for states is to build spaceports for suborbital human spaceflight. I am not a fan of commercial human suborbital spaceflight for the simple reason that, per my understanding, no airworthiness-certified system is being developed for this purpose (see part 1.)
Imagine someone has built the world’s most amazing roller coaster in your state and has convinced the legislature to pass a law exempting the coaster from the otherwise mandatory independent safety inspections. Instead, the ticket purchaser would, by law, need to explicitly accept the risk in order to remove the operator’s legal responsibility for safety, just as they do for whitewater rafting. This is what some states appear to be willing to do for commercial human suborbital spaceflight—what is essentially a giant, trackless roller coaster. Absent a mandate to use airworthiness-certified systems, I do not see a big push to build spaceports for this purpose either. Marketing is not a substitute for safety.
I agree with Gingrich on the need to strengthen congressional support for developing dramatically improved American human space access. The Aerospace States Association should be called upon to support this by the benefits of a strengthened American aerospace industrial base that this initiative will bring. This brings us to the third part of his proposal.
An economic imperative
President Trump has called for the creation of a US Space Force on par with the other branches of the military. On the same day that Gingrich’s op-ed was published, Namrata Goswami published an excellent assessment of the formation of the Space Force in The Diplomat. While her article covered many facets of a creating a US Space Force, the following conclusion is significant:.
Consequently, it is argued that the U.S. government, to include its military, is constitutionally obligated to protect not only military space assets but also commercial and U.S. private sector activities in the cislunar space (the volume within the Moon’s orbit.) To ensure that this is the case, the ability to not only develop cislunar situational awareness but also presence and be fully capable of enforcing laws is viewed as part of U.S. national interest.
When the federal government obtained control over new western territories following the Revolutionary War, the Louisiana Purchase, and so on, it moved to establish federal government control by building forts for the Army and extending the lines of communication to and within the new American frontiers. This opened the door for settlement and commerce.
It is unreasonable to expect that a US Space Force will be established with a mission to only sit on the ground monitoring activities in Earth-Moon space, expressing outrage at press conferences about threatening actions of belligerent nations. All the services have robust capabilities to operate crewed systems within their respective regimes and to project a US military presence globally to protect Americans engaged in commerce and travel. It is only reasonable to expect that the US Space Force will seek comparable crewed operational capabilities throughout Earth-Moon space—to become a real Space Force.
Immediately after World War II, the Air Force was formed as a separate service in 1947. Strategic bombing was its primary mission. For this, it needed new capabilities to offset the emergence of jet-powered fighters. It began a comprehensive program to develop jet-powered, swept-wing bombers—the B-47 and B-52—to gain the needed operational speed, altitude, and range capabilities. For an industry built on piston-powered, straight-wing transports, this was a gamechanger. Both military and commercial aircraft would be able to cruise over intercontinental distances at high altitudes above the weather and at speeds approaching Mach 1. Of course, the Air Force did not do this themselves. They hired airframe, engine, and avionics contractors to develop the systems. Essentially, they paid for the American aerospace industry to leap ahead in terms of its technological mastery, enabling a thriving commercial jet airline industry to emerge only a decade later. This is the model to again use to nationally achieve “aircraft-like access to space.”
The US Space Force will need “aircraft-like access to space” spaceflight systems to enable US spacefarers and materiel to access low Earth orbit (LEO). It will also need facilities in LEO to service these spaceflight systems; support personnel; undertake logistics, maintenance, and training; and, support spaceships providing access throughout Earth-Moon space. This is the equivalent of the Army forts and lines of communication built in the 1800s in new American frontiers to enable settlement and commerce. America’s experience with opening its western frontiers and rapidly advancing its aeronautical industrial mastery after World War II should be highlighted when discussing America’s spacefaring future with the Aerospace States Association.
The seeds of this important discussion have been planted by Gingrich’s proposal. America needs a robust program to aggressively develop near-term “aircraft-like access to space” using airworthiness-certified spaceflight systems to meet emerging civil, commercial, and Space Force needs. Operational robustness demands developing several design- and manufacturing-independent spaceflight systems along with the development of LEO infrastructure and spaceships.
All states, perhaps through the Aerospace States Association, need to be thoroughly briefed on the exciting future that is just starting to unfold. Through the use of advanced nationwide communications and travel, the World War II/Cold War era need to cluster contractors in only a few areas of the country has disappeared. Research, design, and manufacturing can take place across the nation linked together by the rapidly emerging nationwide gigabit-speed Internet and cloud-based data management. This will enable America’s spacefaring enterprise to be a real national program with spacefaring engineering and manufacturing centers opening in locations now devoid of such aerospace enterprises.
It is especially important that all Americans be made aware of the fact that the economic scope of the coming commercial spacefaring activities is staggering. America’s transition, this century, to geosynchronous orbit space solar power to replace fossil fuels is inevitable. To accomplish this, America will need to build hundreds of space solar power systems, each generating more power than the Hoover Dam. This will involve establishing immense American space mining, space manufacturing, space power, and spacefaring logistics industries along with the US Space Force capabilities needed to protect and defend these national assets. All of the engineering and manufacturing needed to equip these industries and the US Space Force will be done here in America, creating many new science, technology, engineering, and manufacturing businesses and jobs.
I applaud Gingrich’s public advocacy for America to get serious about its spacefaring future. America’s great power status demands an aggressive political, economic, and military strategy to protect the United States from threats from and within space while also facilitating America’s transition to space-based sustainable energy to replace fossil fuels. Federal priority must be placed on rapidly achieving an operational “aircraft-like access to space” using airworthiness-certified flight systems along with the establishment of the LEO spacefaring infrastructure to provide an initial American destination in space. These efforts should support civil, commercial, and national security needs and be undertaken as a nationwide effort. With this, America will begin its transformation into a true human spacefaring nation capable of boldly going spaceward!