F-22 Raptor during aerial refueling

The F-22 Raptor, the air-dominance fighter that has been in development since 1981, just flew its first combat mission.

There are reports that it may fly a second combat mission.

Sadly, that is not a joke. The F-22 procurement process has produced something truly remarkable — the first fighter that’s too expensive to risk in combat. Unfortunately, it will not be the last.

The F-35 Lightning II, which was touted as a low-cost alternative to the F-22, has grown into the most expensive procurement program in history. Designed to replace the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F/A-18 Hornet, the A-6 Intruder, and the A/V-8 Harrier (among others), the sophisticated F-35 is plagued with technical problems and has been called “the worst fighter in history.”

It’s a cliche to say that the military procurement system is suffering from hardening of the arteries. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to any way back. The natural evolution of bureaucratic systems is toward more overhead and less flexibility.

This entrenched bureaucracy will be a challenge for DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane program (XS-1). DARPA is the advanced-research arm of the Defense Department. Its goal is to transfer the technology to customers in the military or private sector. If DARPA transfers the spaceplane technology directly to the Air Force, the final result will almost certainly go the way of the F-22 and F-35. If the Experimental Spaceplane technology is to live up to cost-saving promise, DARPA will need a good commercialization plan.

All indications are that DARPA knows this. The DARPA project managers running XS-1 are among the best in the Federal government. If anyone can solve the problem, they can. Due to its unique mission, DARPA is not subject to many of the rules that constrain other parts of DoD. That is not to say that DARPA has a completely free hand, however. It still operates within the framework of DoD and the Federal government. It may be that this is a problem no one can solve.

Northrop Grumman Experimental Spaceplane concept

Written by Astro1 on September 23rd, 2014 , Military Space

Northrop Grumman Experimental Spaceplane concept

Northrop Grumman has revealed its conceptual design for DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1), which is being developed in partnership with Virgin Galactic.

Northrop Grumman also revealed that Scaled Composites (a Northrop Grumman subsidiary) will play a key role in the 13-month, $3.9 million phase-one effort.

Scaled Composites of Mojave will lead spaceplane fabrication and assembly, while Virgin Galactic heads the transition to commercial spaceplane operations. (One of DARPA’s goals is to transfer spaceplane technology to a military or commercial operator).

The reusable spaceplane is intended to achieve aircraft-like operations, providing a breakthrough in launch costs. With an expendable upper stage, it will place up to 3,000 pounds into low Earth orbit, enabling new generations of innovative, lower-cost payloads.

A key program goal is to fly ten times in ten days, with minimal infrastructure and ground crew. DARPA believes that reusable aircraft-like operations could reduce military and commercial launch costs by a factor of ten.

Northrop Grumman says the design will be built around operability and affordability. Aircraft-like features include clean-pad launch using a transporter/erector/launcher, minimal infrastructure and ground crew; highly autonomous flight operations; and horizontal landing and recovery on standard runways.

Written by Astro1 on August 19th, 2014 , Military Space, Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic

The US Air Force Operationally Responsive Space Office plans to demonstrate a low-cost smallsat capable of providing space-situational-awareness coverage for Geosynchronous Earth Orbit.

The Lincoln Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology will design and build the SensorSat satellite, which is expected to launch in 2017. SensorSat will be placed into a low Earth orbit from which it will continuously scan the GEO belt.

SensorSat will help reduce risks for cutting-edge technologies expected to make their way into the Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) follow-on satellites, which will start development in 2016.

Written by Astro1 on August 1st, 2014 , Military Space

Boeing/DARPA Experimental SpacePlane (XS-1) concept

Following DARPA’s announcement of three Experimental SpacePlane (XS-1) teams, the Boeing Company released an illustration of its XS-1 design concept.

“Our design would allow the autonomous booster to carry the second stage and payload to high altitude and deploy them into space,” said Will Hampton, Boeing XS-1 program manager. “The booster would then return to Earth, where it could be quickly prepared for the next flight by applying operation and maintenance principles similar to modern aircraft. Drawing on our other innovative technologies, Boeing intends to provide a concept that uses efficient, streamlined ground infrastructure and improves the turnaround time to relaunch this spacecraft for subsequent missions.”

Boeing and its subcontractor Blue Origin will receive $4 million for the XS-1 Phase I study. DARPA plans to hold a Phase II competition next year for the follow-on production order to build the vehicle and conduct demonstration flights.

Steve Johnston, director of Boeing’s Phantom Works Advanced Space Exploration division, said that “Developing a vehicle that launches small payloads more affordably is a priority for future US Defense Department operations.”

Written by Astro1 on July 15th, 2014 , Blue Origin, Boeing, Military Space

DARPA Experimental SpacePlane-1 (XS-1) launch

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has announced the selection of three teams to conduct Phase One design studies for the agency’s Experimental SpacePlane 1 (XS-1).

DARPA has selected Boeing (working with Blue Origin), Masten Space Systems (working with XCOR Aerospace), and Northrop Grumman Corporation (working with Virgin Galactic) to design the reusable experimental spaceplane, which is expected to fly ten times in ten days, fly to Mach 10+ at least once, and launch a 3,000-5,000 pound payload to orbit.

DARPA Experimental SpacePlane-1 (XS-1) staging

Program manager Jess Sponable said that DARPA “chose performers who could prudently integrate existing and up-and-coming technologies and operations, while making XS-1 as reliable, easy-to-use and cost-effective as possible. We’re eager to see how their initial designs envision making spaceflight commonplace—with all the potential military, civilian and commercial benefits that capability would provide.”

According to a DARPA press release, the XS-1 program “aims to develop a fully-reusable unmanned vehicle that would provide aircraft-like access to space and deploy small satellites to orbit using expendable upper stages. XS-1 seeks to deploy small satellites faster and more affordably, and develop technology for next-generation hypersonic vehicles.

“XS-1 envisions that a reusable first stage would fly to hypersonic speeds at a suborbital altitude. At that point, one or more expendable upper stages would separate and deploy a satellite into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The reusable first stage would then return to earth, land and be prepared for the next flight. Modular components, durable thermal protection systems and automatic launch, flight and recovery systems should significantly reduce logistical needs, enabling rapid turnaround between flights.”

In addition to creating vehicle designs, the three teams will identify and conduct critical risk reduction of core component technologies and processes and develop a technology maturation plan leading to fabrication and flight-test.

DARPA expects the teams to “explore alternative technical approaches from the perspectives of feasibility, performance, system design and development cost and operational cost. They must also assess potential suitability for near-term transition opportunities to military, civil, and commercial users. These opportunities include both launching small payloads per the program goals as well as others, such as supporting future hypersonic testing and a future space-access aircraft.”

DARPA did not announce the size of the contracts, but previous statements place the awards at about $3 million each. (Boeing has just announced that its award is $4 million.)

Technology developed in the XS-1 program could transition into future fully reusable orbital systems, such as XCOR’s Lynx Mark V (the successor to the Lynx suborbital spacecraft) or Blue Origin’s VTVL system. DARPA has not specified a launch or landing mode, but it is anticipated that XS-1 concepts will include both vertical and horizontal takeoff and landing systems.


Written by Astro1 on July 15th, 2014 , Blue Origin, Boeing, Masten Space Systems, Military Space, XCOR Aerospace

Boeing / USAF X-37B

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Garretson asks whether the US Air Force will have a role in planetary defense and asteroid mining, in the March-April 2014 issue of Air and Space Power Journal.

Lieutenant Colonel Garretson and other Air Force strategists have repeatedly raised the topic of asteroid impacts over the years. Nevertheless, the Air Force has not adopted planetary defense as a formal mission:

Despite its potential severity, few Airmen seem to have an appetite for a subject not perceived as “real” war fighting and considered a “low-probability event.” An earlier cadre of Air Force Space Command advocates [submitted] a package to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council to establish a formal mission requirement. In accordance with the wisdom of the time, the council denied it. Let’s repeat that: no requirement to protect planet Earth exists.

To achieve an initial operational capability against asteroid threats, Garretson argues that the USAF should complete a survey of Near Earth Objects using a space-based telescope in a Venus-like orbit (estimated to cost about $500 million) and develop ready-to-launch reconnaissance probes (about $150 million each) and interceptor busses (about $250 million each).

Garretson also argues that the USAF should prepare for a world economy that expands outward into the solar system as companies like Planetary Resources begin to mine the asteroids:

Developing the requisite technology allows the Air Force to play a role similar to its function in aviation, whereby the service’s investment in jet engines and large aircraft catalyzed intercontinental air transport—a mode of transportation that now accounts for 35 percent of global trade by value. By retiring the risk for deep-space transportation and noncooperative capture and deflection, we not only would advance Air Force and US security equities in concert with pursuing a global public good, but also would lay the foundation for a revolution in space transportation and wealth generation.

If we wish to become the visionaries who lead America toward becoming a true spacefaring nation—one that survives such long-term existential threats as asteroids—then we must pursue not simply narrow military power. Just as Rear Adm Alfred Thayer Mahan set us on the right course in naval power and as Brig Gen William “Billy” Mitchell did so in airpower, we need to invest in general spacefaring and its supporting industry. The Air Force is missing the boat (or spacecraft). If the service truly wants to be America’s Space Force, it can’t shy away from this “growth industry” and what will likely become the most essential defense mission of a space force / space guard: planetary defense — the single mission that provides a deep-space requirement. To cede this requirement is to fall into the same precedent as the Army Air Corps, which conceived of airpower as nothing more than a supporting function for land power. A space force cannot just look downward; it must look outward to the source not only of danger but also of wealth and opportunity.

Written by Astro1 on April 6th, 2014 , Military Space, Planetary Defense, Space Policy and Management

Boeing/DARPA ALASA airborne rocket launch concept F-15 Eagle

Boeing has won the contract competition to build DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) launch system.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 25th, 2014 , Military Space, Nanosatellites

NASA space-based solar-power satellite concept

Using space-based solar power to meet our energy needs on Earth is not a new idea. Dr. Peter Glaser of Arthur D. Little, Inc. described a space-based solar-power satellite concept in 1968, one year before Neal Armstrong walked on the Moon. Glaser proposed using microwave beams to transmit power back to Earth. Others have proposed using laser beams, but none of the space-based power concepts have gone anywhere in the last 45 years.

A practical space-based solar power satellite requires some technical advances, mainly in launch costs but also in other areas such as in-space fabrication, control of large space structures, and on-orbit maintainability. The biggest stumbling block, however, is not technical but economic. Despite the enthusiasm of advocates, the economic viability of space-based solar power has always been questionable, to say the least.

The prospects for space-based solar power may be dramatically improved, however, thanks to an emerging interest from the US Navy.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 18th, 2014 , Military Space

USAF F-22 Raptor

“Unmanned space” guys take note: Unmanned air vehicles are now being escorted by manned fighters.

The Aviationist reports:

Earlier this year… an IRIAF (Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force) F-4 Phantom combat plane attempted to intercept a U.S. MQ-1 drone flying in international airspace off Iran…. After this attempted interception the Pentagon decided to escort the drones involved in ISR (intelligence surveillance reconnaissance) missions with fighter jets (either F-18 Hornets with the CVW 9 embarked on the USS John C. Stennis… or F-22 Raptors like those deployed to Al Dhafra in the UAE.

This is significant to space because UAVs are often cited as proof that human flight crews are becoming obsolete. The military, however, is now realizing that UAVs cannot do every job.

The fact is, many jobs can be more easily accomplished by humans and machines, working together, than by machines alone. This is true in space as well as aviation.

As an interesting side note, the US military once considered having manned spacecraft fly escort for high-value satellites (anti-ASAT missions) during times of crisis.

The DARPA Space Cruiser (also called the High-Performance Spaceplane) was a 1980’s concept for a one-man spacecraft that could be launched by the Space Shuttle or an expendable rocket. Using its own propulsion system or a Centaur upper stage, the Space Cruiser could accomplish a variety of missions in cis-lunar space. Proposed missions included satellite inspection and repair, reconnaissance, space control, and the aforementioned anti-antisatellite missions.

DARPA Space Cruiser

Written by Astro1 on October 27th, 2013 , Military Space, Space Exploration (General), Space History Tags:

Millennium Space Systems has completed a successful high-altitude balloon test of its new microsatellite bus, developed under the company’s DARPA SeeMe contract.

SeeMe, or Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements, is DARPA program intended to provide near-realtime tactical intelligence to the warfighter in the field, using a constellation of small satellites in orbit. Two dozen satellites would deliver one-meter-resolution images to handheld terminals in the field. The satellites would be launched from an aircraft usingma system developed under a parallel program called Airborne Launch Assist Space Access. DARPA hopes to test the first SeeMe constellation in Earth orbit by 2015. The SeeMe program has been targeted for cancellation by the US Senate, however.


The 1.5-hour flight to nearly 30 kilometers altitude over California’s Mojave Desert exercised key satellite subsystems and operational capabilities. The SeeMe prototype carried a telescope and new technology digital camera developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory which successfully captured images of the Earth during the mission, simulating the intended orbital capability. Engineers commanded the payload and received the resulting images from a mobile ground terminal, emulating the SeeMe “point and shoot” military theater operations concept.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on October 16th, 2013 , Military Space

Matrix Games has just released Command: Modern Naval Air Operations, developed by Warfare Sims. Although billed as a naval and air warfare simulation, Command also includes a space satellite component.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on October 8th, 2013 , Military Space

DARPA Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has initiated a new program, called Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1), to develop a fully reusable unmanned vehicle that would provide aircraft-like access to space.

DARPA is seeking to develop a vehicle that can operate from a “clean pad” with a small ground crew and no need for expensive specialized infrastructure. This setup would enable routine daily operations and flights from a wide range of locations. XS-1 seeks to deploy small satellites faster and more affordably, while demonstrating technology for next-generation space and hypersonic flight for both government and commercial users.

The DARPA program manager for XS-1 is Jess Sponable, who served as DoD program manager for the highly highly successful Delta Clipper Experimental in the 1990’s. Sponable was also one of several Air Force officers selected to train as military spaceflight engineers to fly aboard the Space Shuttle in the 1980’s.

“We want to build off of proven technologies to create a reliable, cost-effective space delivery system with one-day turnaround,” Sponable said. “How it’s configured, how it gets up and how it gets back are pretty much all on the table. We’re looking for the most creative yet practical solutions possible.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on September 17th, 2013 , Military Space

DARPA SeeMe (Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements)

The DARPA SeeMe project is being targeted by the Senate for cancellation, according to Space News.

SeeMe, which stands for Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements, is aimed at providing near-realtime imaging for military warfighters. DARPA requested $10.5 million for SeemE development in Fiscal Year 2014, but the Senate Appropriations Committee has recommended program termination, according to Space News.

Millenium Space Systems was scheduled to build six prototype satellites and 24 operational SeeMe satellites. The satellites would be launched by a new low-cost airborne launch system developed under the ALASA (Airborne Launch Assist Space Access) program.

SeeMe is one of the few government programs aimed at reducing the cost of space capabilities. So, it is ironic (but not surprising) that the Appropriations Committee has chosen to target it.


Written by Astro1 on August 21st, 2013 , Military Space

Reuters reports that DoD’s costs for Delta and Atlas launches, purchased under the Enhanced Expendable Launch Vehicle or EELV program, will more than double. That figure is somewhat misleading. As the article notes, the number of planned launches is increasing, from 91 to 151 (an increase of 66%).

Nevertheless, the cost per launch is increasing, even if the increase is not as dramatic as the headline implies. This is problematic, given the flat or shrinking military budgets expected in future years.

The Clinton-era policy of forced defense consolidation, which resulted in Delta and Atlas being marketed by a single organization, United Launch Alliance, has backfired. To the surprise of many in Washington DC, and no one outside the Beltway, creating a monopoly did not reduce costs.

Faced with this problem, the US Air Force (which manages military space programs) has created Orbital/Suborbital Program 3 (OSP-3) to certify additional launchers, such as Lockheed’s Athena, Orbital’s Antares and Minotaur, and SpaceX’s Falcon, for military launches. Of these rockets, only Falcon has a growth path that would allow it to compete with Atlas and Delta for the largest military payloads. SpaceX recently qualified for two launches under OSP-3, but the military’s approach to new launchers remains highly conservative, due to understandable concerns about the unproven reliability of new rockets as political pressure to protect existing contractors. As a result, Delta and Atlas are expected to carry the bulk of DoD launches for years to come.

Written by Astro1 on May 24th, 2013 , Military Space

DARPA Membrane Optic Imager Real-Time Exploitation (MOIRE)

Hollywood loves to imagine military systems with all sorts of capabilities that do not exist in the real world. One of their favorites is the satellite that’s able to hover over a target and rely high-resolution images back to a ground station on Earth.

This is not possible in the real world because current imaging satellites are in Low Earth Orbit, move on fixed flight paths, and see only a small part of the Earth at any given time.

That’s not to say that warfighters wouldn’t like to have something resembling those fictional abilities. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on January 26th, 2013 , Military Space

The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency produced this video as a status update on the DARPA Phoenix program.


The Phoenix project is developing technologies to harvest valuable components from retired, nonworking satellites for reuse. DARPA seeks to demonstrate the ability to create new space systems onorbit at greatly reduced cost by reusing apertures and antennas from decommissioned satellites in a graveyard or disposal orbit.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on January 25th, 2013 , Military Space

Aviation Week reports that Raytheon has received a $1.5-million, nine-month contract to begin designing a small imaging satellite under the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) project.

SeeMe intends to demonstrate a 24-satellite constellation that can provide rapid tactical intelligence to the warfighter. The SeeMe satellite would provide 1-meter resolution images on demand to handheld terminals in the field.


DARPA specified that each SeeMe should weigh less than 100 pounds. Raytheon’s concept is substantially lighter at 44 pounds. Another goal is affordable, on-demand production. DARPA wants to the manufacturer to be able to deliver a satellite within 90 days of initial order, for no more than $500,000.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on January 3rd, 2013 , Military Space, Nanosatellites

Popular Mechanics has published a short summary of talks given at the Air Force Association Air & Space Conference, including interesting views from two former NASA astronauts.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on September 23rd, 2012 , Military Space, Space Policy and Management

US Army Kestrel Eye tactical reconnaissance satellite for warfighters

The development of small, low-cost off-the-shelf satellite technology is enabling new capabilities for military as well as civilian users. The US Army is taking advantage of this technological revolution by developing three new satellites to provide tactical imaging for the warfighter.

Kestrel Eye

The Technology Center at the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command is developing Kestrel Eye, an imaging reconnaissance nanosatellite that can be tasked by warfighters on the ground. Kestrel Eye will produce images with a resolution of 1.5 meters (5 feet), which can be downlinked directly to soldiers in the field.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on August 26th, 2012 , Innovation, Military Space, Nanosatellites

The following video was produced by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It shows the capabilities DARPA hopes to achieve through its Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) program.


Contrary to popular belief, current reconnaissance satellites do not play a large role in tactical engagements on the military battlefield. The KH-series reconnaissance satellites were developed during the Cold War for monitoring the Soviet buildup  and verifying compliance with arms-control treaties. Although the Cold War is long over, they are still optimized for that purpose. The immense cost of a KH satellite (comparable to the cost of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, according to former Senator Kit Bond) means the United States can only afford to have one or two in orbit at any time. The limitations of orbital mechanics mean that they are out of position for most targets at any given time. This is not a problem for long-term studies of stationary or slow-moving mobile targets, but it is completely inadequate for monitoring fast-moving fluid situations on the battlefield. The sort of real-time satellite reconnaissance seen in movies and TV shows is pure fiction.

DARPA’s SeeMe program seeks to turn that fiction into reality. Achieving such capabilities will require responsive, low-cost launch systems such as the air-launch system depicted in this video.

There’s a great deal of commonality between the launch requirements for responsive military space systems like SeeMe and the requirements of commercial space and citizen science.  Much more so than there is with the International Space Station, whose required flight rate is quite limited by comparison.

Written by Astro1 on August 22nd, 2012 , Innovation, Military Space