In the three-story main complex at McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Co.'s sprawling facility in Huntington Beach, a team of several dozen scientists has been working for two years on an ambitious new rocket program for the 21st Century.
McDonnell Douglas is one of six U.S. aerospace companies vying for two Air Force contracts to design a low-cost, heavy-duty rocket launching system that would serve as a kind of big-rig truck in space.
The program is intended to replace the nation's existing generation of launch vehicles with a new family of unmanned rockets capable of carrying payloads ranging from 40,000 pounds up to 200,000 pounds--or more than four times what the space shuttle can handle.
The new rockets are crucial to the deployment of President Reagan's "Star Wars" missile-defense system. Pentagon officials have said that a dramatic reduction in the cost of space launches is critical to making the program--already under intense budget pressure in Congress--economically viable.
The rocket system would be used to transport components for the missile defense system into space. The Strategic Defense Initiative office has estimated that the rocket program, the Advanced Launch System, will cost $17 billion for design and production.
Jeopardy to Program
Although the new rockets are one of the least publicized aspects of Star Wars research, the lack of a low-cost, heavy-lift rocket could jeopardize the entire program, according to a congressional study released earlier this month.
"(ALS) is not getting the attention it deserves," said Bruce MacDonald, an aide to Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) and an author of a Senate report on the SDI program. "It's not real glamorous--it's a big dumb booster rocket--but it's damned important."
The Senate report said that even optimistic planners do not expect the ALS program to be ready before the late 1990s.
"Even if the maiden launch occurs in 1998, it will be 1 1/2 to two years later before the ALS system would reach its full annual launch capacity," said the report, drafted by aides to Democratic Sens. Bumpers, J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and William Proxmire of Wisconsin. "Thus, with the current ALS program SDI cannot begin meaningful deployment until probably the Year 2000. There simply will be no means of lifting the SDI weapons and sensors into orbit at affordable cost."
Other potential uses for the rocket system would be to launch larger intelligence and communications satellites than now is possible and for construction of the U.S. space station. Further into the future, large booster rockets would be needed to carry out a manned mission to Mars or establish colonies on the moon. Some supporters of ALS worry that the Soviet Union is jumping ahead in the development of giant booster rockets.
The program's objectives are ambitious. The goal is to develop new propulsion, manufacturing and testing technologies that will reduce per-pound launch expenses to a 10th of today's cost. Specifically, the new rockets would be capable of carrying payloads of up to 200,000 pounds into orbit near the earth at a cost of $300 per pound. By comparison, Martin Marietta's newest Titan IV rocket--scheduled for its initial flight late this year--will haul military payloads of up to 40,000 pounds at a cost of roughly $3,600 per pound. The space shuttle can carry about 45,000 pounds at a cost of about $5,000 per pound.
Launching the hardware for the Star Wars system would require lifting as much as 5 million pounds of equipment into orbit per year, SDI officials have estimated. That is about 14 times what was launched in 1985, the year before the space shuttle Challenger explosion.
Proponents said some type of ALS effort is needed regardless of the fate of the controversial Star Wars program. But others said the program could be in jeopardy if Star Wars is killed by the next administration.
Questions the Program
"I'm unable to identify anybody other than SDI who needs ALS," said John E. Pike, associate director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based arms-control research group that has been critical of Star Wars. "There just isn't anybody else who needs to launch that much payload at one time."
In order for ALS to make economic sense, Pike said, the rockets will have to be flown much more frequently than any existing system. "The entire system is based on very frequent launch rates," he said. "You need to amortize the cost of building the system over lots of flights. . . . If you're only flying a couple times a year, you're not going to get those frequent-flier discounts."
Pike further argued that it is doubtful the Star Wars system will ever be deployed because of technical budgetary and political considerations. Without a Star Wars system, there is no need for the frequent launches envisioned by ALS planners, he said.