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© 1997 by Donald F. Robertson.


This article may be distributed at will, but only if it is not changed in any way, and only if the author's name, the copyright notice, the name of the journal it first appeared in, and this notice remain attached. In addition, this article may not be sold for money, or published for sale in any way, without the author's prior written permission.

This article originally appeared in Space and Communications.



Donald F. Robertson

All advocates for the commercial development of space should be extremely disappointed about the Air Force's failure to retain Boeing's partially reusable design for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV. Boeing had planned to package Space Shuttle Main Engines, the most efficient and reliable rocket motors in the world, into a re-usable module. After launch, the rockets would have been recovered it at sea, saving the cost of building new ones.

Boeing even tested the technique, dropping a prototype module into water, then successfully firing the engines. This proved that the idea would work.

Above the first stage fuel tank, Boeing's rocket would have looked much like today's expendable launch vehicles. The vehicle would have needed only a single disposable upper stage using conventional, off-the-shelf rocket engines, according to Boeing. All missions would have been performed using the single, common core stage.

Granted, Boeing's relatively risky and innovative design pushed the envelope of the word "evolved." Theirs was clearly the highest risk approach; it was the most likely to run into the kinds of technical problems and cost over-runs that the Air Force, and the nation, can ill afford.

So, why do I think Boeing should have won?

Because all of the other designs are in fact safe. They are too safe. Without exception, they are variations of what we already have, especially in the cases of the of the two that won: McDonnell Douglas' and Lockheed Martin's. The latter two are relatively straightforward upgrades to the existing Delta and Atlas rockets, respectively.

These designs may result in significant reductions in launch costs, but the reduced costs are unlikely to beat the Air Force's goal of a twenty-five percent reduction. Given the traditional, conservative nature of these designs, it is fair to say that there is a good chance that they would not even achieve the twenty-five percent goal.

Even if a twenty-five percent reduction is achieved -- while it would certainly be desirable -- it will do little to change the United States' relatively poor competitive position in launch vehicles. Nor will a reduction of that magnitude greatly increase commercial activities in low Earth orbit and beyond.

The fourth design, by Alliant Techsystems, which joined Boeing in the loser's column, was at least innovative. It would have relied on giant solid rocket boosters adapted from the Titan program, strapped together to create an all-solid first stage. This would have been a relatively simple vehicle, and therefore a relatively cheap one.

After the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the first Solid Rocket Motor Upgrade Titan, large solid rockets have a bad rep. Nonetheless, a case can be made in either direction for the reliability and cost advantages of large solids.

Even in the event that the large solids used on the EELV proved both safer and cheaper than liquid rockets, Alliant's design would have represented a dead-end. Solid rockets will never be as environmentally benign as liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen engines, which would have severely limited the long-term potential of the design. It could never be launched with the frequency that large space projects like Teledesic or a Lunar base would require. The potential for increased efficiency in solid rockets is extremely limited. It is very hard to see the further development of large solid rockets leading to easy access to space at a cost substantially less than today's costs.

In contrast, Boeing's design had a future. Space Shuttle Main Engines still represent the state-of-the-art in rocket technology. In over two decades, no other country has duplicated re-usable high energy rocket engines at the SSME's scale, nor are they likely to any time soon. The United States should exploit this lead.

Space Shuttle Main Engines can be launched frequently with little environmental risk. They are extremely efficient and, if they can be recovered and re-used without substantially increasing the overall complexity of the launch vehicle, they have the potential of radically lowering launch costs.

A Boeing representative told me that their Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle design would beat today's launch costs by "greater than" fifty percent. With solid rocket boosters, it would have a greater payload than the Ariane-V and it would have an astonishing twenty-four hour turn-around. First launch could be as early as 2001. After the Air Force's decision not to select Boeing, he also defended the project's risk, stating, "We've been studying the concept for twelve years, and, having put most of the hardware through testing, don't feel it to be any riskier than the winning proposals. The Avionics are from the Inertial Upper Stage [used on the Space Shuttle], the parachutes are Apollo-derived, the core stage is based on the Saturn-V, et cetera.

If the Air Force had continued to support Boeing's studies, they would have tested an idea that has never before been tried on a large scale in an automated setting: a partially re-usable launch vehicle. Equally important, for those of us who have larger ambitions in the inner Solar System, Boeing's design was big, and it had room for substantial growth, allowing potentially grand payloads and large economies of scale. Most importantly, it would have represented insurance against any failure of NASA's X-33 to produce great reductions in launch costs.

There is no guarantee that Boeing's approach really would have been radically cheaper. Space Shuttle engines are complex and costly; reduced costs are critically dependent of efficient re-use, which Space Shuttle experience has shown to be less than easy. But Boeing's plan had the chance to be radically cheaper, which is not true of any of the other three proposals.

A radically cheaper launch vehicle, if achieved, might have saved the Air Force billions. More importantly, substantially easier access to orbit could have gone a long way toward opening the Solar System to exploration and industry.

Many would argue that that is not the Air Force's job, and, indeed, it is not. The Air Force's job is to defend the United States, but defining the United States includes making the Air Force's extensive space operations as affordable as possible.

By selecting two conservative designs, and failing to continue support for an innovative one, the Air Force has failed our nation's long-term interests. Conservative rocket designs do not need a government subsidy; the commercial satellite industry has proved itself perfectly capable of supporting evolutionary improvements to today's expendable launch vehicles. These are adequate for most, if not all, Air Force requirements. Government money should be reserved for revolutionary technologies and radical new designs. Boeing's proposal met the latter criteria.

If the Air Force insists on staying the safest possible course, and refuses to support the nation's wider interests in space, the entire Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program should be re-considered. The money should be given to NASA's various projects to radically reduce launch costs, particularly the X-33, and evolutionary rocket development should be left to the commercial world.

Boeing has consistently declined to state whether they would continue their EELV design as a commercial project if they lost the Air Force's competition. If Boeing succeeded in radically reducing launch costs, the company could dominate the world's launch industry the way they now dominate the commercial airframe market. With SeaLaunch, Boeing has demonstrated a willingness to expend substantial corporate resources on risky commercial launch endeavors, and, after their merger with McDonnell Douglas, the company is expected to have near-term access to large quantities of "free" cash.

Advocates for opening the Solar System to exploration, trade, commerce, and industry, should hope that Boeing has a clearer vision for our future in space than the Air Force.


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