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The Cape, Chapter 4, Section 2

Future Space Operations

The Space Transportation Architecture Study and Advanced Launch System (ALS) Studies

In addition to the long-term goals of the National Space Transportation and Support Study, the government wanted to examine payload requirements and launch options projected over the middle term (e.g., 1985-1995). Toward that end, a jointly funded NASA, Air Force and SDIO Space Transportation Architecture Study (STAS) was offered in June 1985, and four contracts worth approximately $6,000,000 apiece were awarded to Boeing, Rockwell International, General Dynamics and Martin Marietta on 6 September 1985. Not surprisingly, the result of this effort was very modest: a special report in December 1986 discussed SDI requirements, and a final Interim Progress Report made basic recommendations concerning space architecture in the 1990s. In the short term, the launch community could only hope to sort out cost reduction opportunities for the TITAN IV, DELTA II and Space Shuttle. Any major reductions in operating costs awaited a more thorough examination of space support systems, followed by proposals for an advanced launch system.6

In July 1987, one-year concept definition contracts were issued to seven contractors to prepare the groundwork for the Advanced Launch System (ALS). As a result of that effort, a better picture of future launch systems emerged: the new ALS vehicle would mostly likely be based on a hydrogen-fueled core with a varying number of strap-on solid rocket or liquid engine boosters. By taking this "tinker toy" (modular) approach to the vehicle, payloads ranging from 10,000 to 200,000 pounds could be lifted into space much more economically. Borrowing a page from Soviet and Western European rocket design, the new vehicles would be simpler and heavier, thus avoiding the expensive "high performance" characteristics of American boosters in the past. Three basic booster concepts dominated the contractors' proposals. The least costly vehicle would employ a hydrogen core and from six to twelve solid rocket boosters. The core stages would provide all thrust vector control, and the solids would be designed with composite, monolithic cases and fixed rocket nozzles. A more costly vehicle employed a liquid core and from one to six strap-on liquid rocket engines. All core and strap-on stages would have common components, tankage and structure, and all engines would be ignited on the launch stand to verify proper operation before the vehicle was released (i.e., no in-flight engine starts would be required). The most expensive and most advanced ALS alternative was a winged, fully reusable booster. Owing to technological uncertainty, the winged booster was not as likely a candidate for the ALS as the other two booster concepts.7

Figure 136: Reference ALS Family of Vehicles (Conceptual)

Ground support facilities were addressed in the ALS studies as well. The old launch pads with their fixed umbilical towers would be replaced with austere launch pads devoid of service towers. To avoid tying up the launch pad for long periods of time, most launch processing would occur away from the pad, and payload/launch vehicle mating would be accomplished in a vertical integration facility. Only when the vehicle was ready to launch would it be moved out to the pad, fueled from base mounted utilities and launched. In the contractors' opinion, the key to streamlining the launch process lay in integrating and testing the launch vehicle away from the pad. In the event a vehicle broke down before launch, it could be quickly removed from the pad without costly teardown, transport, reassembly and retest procedures.8

Figure 137: ALS Common Core Stage

The Defense Acquisition Board was briefed on the results of the ALS concept definition studies in September 1988. The Board embraced cost reduction as the primary focus for the ALS, and it supported the concept of a family of launch vehicles based on standardized modules. On 4 November 1988, Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci signed an Acquisition Decision Memorandum (ADM) approving the initial concept. This action paved the way for further ALS efforts. In December 1988, three two-year Phase II ALS contracts were awarded to Boeing, General Dynamics and a Martin Marietta/McDonnell Douglas contracting team for the development of ALS designs and demonstrations of ALS technology. Initially, the U.S. Government hoped to find out if the ALS could be expanded to accommodate ten 100,000-pound and twenty 150,000-pound payload class launches per year by 2005. Nevertheless, by early March 1989, a major change in the ALS Systems Requirement Document introduced two different baseline scenarios for the ALS: 1) a smaller vehicle with a launch rate of six to ten vehicles per year around 2000, and 2) a larger booster with a launch rate of 20 or more vehicles by 2009. The Space Systems Division Program Manager for ALS instructed the contractors to design their ALS facilities with payloads up to 220,000 pounds in mind. Furthermore, the facilities were to be sited to allow growth to a 300,000-pound payload class system in the more distant future.9

Figure 138: ALS Solid Rocket Motor Description

Political and budgetary realities were already at work modifying prospects for the ALS. In March 1989, the new SDIO Director, Lt. General George L. Monahan, Jr. told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Research and Development that his office "saw little urgency to build an ALS" before the early decades of the 21st Century. In April, the Air Force Times reported a "sentiment in Congress" for a scaled-down ALS using improved versions of present-generation boosters. In the spring and summer of 1989, it seemed less and less likely that the Bush Administration would push a full-blown Strategic Defense Initiative program through Congress or that a future administration would be able to fund such a system. In October 1989, funding cutbacks effectively killed support for the SDIO's Zenith Star (directed energy) experimental mission, and the shift in emphasis to lightweight kinetic energy weapons (e.g., Brilliant Pebbles and Brilliant Eyes) reduced SDIO payload requirements dramatically. Since much of the demand for large ALS boosters depended on a vigorous SDI program as well as a low-Earth orbiting space station, full-scale development of the ALS family of vehicles would have to wait until the Air Force and NASA had substantive mission requirements for the big boosters. In a joint message from the Secretary of the Air Force and Air Force Headquarters on 7 December 1989, the ALS Program Office was directed to terminate Phase II design efforts "as soon as practical" and suspend any new obligations pending redirection of the ALS into a technology program. In early February 1990, the Space Systems Division Commander praised the ALS program as a technical and managerial success. Though the ALS family of boosters would not be developed, all three ALS contractors were directed to transfer ALS technology to the existing fleet of unmanned boosters. The ATLAS, TITAN and IUS programs all stood to benefit from automated ground support systems, off-line processing and "paperless" management techniques encouraged under Phase II. According to NASA's calculations, some of the greatest reductions in launch costs would come from the development of low-cost engines (modestly funded through 1998) and streamlined processing procedures.10

The net effect of ALS was to prepare the DELTA II, ATLAS II and TITAN IV programs for further refinements through the 1990s. (The dream of a new generation of launch vehicles was not dead, but, as a practical matter, it would have to wait for another time.) In the meantime, the ALS Program Manager, Colonel John R. Wormington, succeeded Colonel Roy D. Bridges, Jr. as ESMC Commander on 27 January 1990. One of Colonel Wormington's first actions as Commander was to have his plans people begin a study of launch, range and user requirements at the Cape through 2005. Though the effort was led by Plans (ESMC/XR), the study was broken down into functional areas with team leaders from various ESMC agencies to oversee investigations into each area. Following the kick-off meeting on 8 February 1990, five interactive panels began looking at launch processing facilities, range modernization, communications, safety and weather. The interactive panels were backed up with six support panels to address range infrastructure, launch commercialization, manpower, budget, logistics and security. A twelfth panel was created to document the ESMC baseline anticipated by 2005.11

The Cape: Miltary Space Operations 1971-1992
by Mark C. Cleary, Chief Historian
45 Space Wing Office of History
1201 Minuteman Ave, Patrick AFB, FL 32925

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