May 6, 2009

Air Force Weighing Options To Revitalize Space Industry

The US Air Force intends to revamp the national space industry with the introduction of a new strategic plan.

The plan, being introduced under the authority of the head of Air Force Space Command Gen. Robert Kehler, seeks to revitalize a declining US defense base with an emphasis on space institutions.

"There are lots of reasons for (the declining program) and the question is how to do we invest wisely to try to preserve the base," Kehler told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Space Foundation.

The Air Force is discussing plans with producers of solid rocket motors, as well as government agencies including NASA and the Missile Defense Agency.

Reuters reports that Kehler noted budget constraints as a major hurdle for funding of future satellite launches.

Alliant Techsystems; Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a unit of United Technologies Corp; and Aerojet, a unit of GenCorp Inc, are the primary U.S. rocket motor makers, said Reuters.

"But if we take what we have been calling a sort of a 'family of motors approach' ... and if we look at a way to mix and match rocket motor parts, maybe we can do a better job in sustaining an industrial base that we need very significantly," Kehler said.

The Air Force is weighing options to use a similar approach with satellite makers including Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co and Northrop Grumman Corp. However, many of the programs of those firms have "run into serious cost and technology problems," according to Reuters.

Kehler said that the US government will always be in the market for large satellites, but by diversification among more manufacturers of smaller satellites could lead to more frequent launches.

The Air Force is also eyeing the possibility of using government sensors on commercial satellites.

Kehler told Reuters that "the collision in space of a satellite owned by Iridium and a dead Russian military satellite in February has galvanized Air Force efforts to monitor objects in space and forecast possible collisions."

"The collision has underscored the need for the U.S. government to increase its awareness of what is happening in space, given the enormous importance of satellites for the overall U.S. economy and the U.S. military," said Reuters.

The plans come as President Barack Obama's administration has announced plans of its own to review the spacecraft program that NASA had intended to replace its space shuttle system.

The LA Times has reported that the review "would examine whether the Ares 1 rocket and Orion capsule are the best option to send astronauts into orbit by 2015." The review could be completed by fall of this year.

The outcome of that review is likely to effect the Kennedy Space Center, which stands to lose as many as 10,000 jobs upon the retirement of the space shuttle program next year, which would leave a five-year gap before the first Ares launch.

"I don't think they [White House officials] are completely convinced that the Constellation program, as designed, is the best way to go," Vincent G. Sabathier, a space expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the LA Times.

Sabathier said the administration wants to "mitigate the gap," between programs.


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