Rocket Systems Launch Program (RSLP)
Orbital/Sub-Orbital Program (OSP)
The Rocket Systems Launch Program (RSLP) converts surplus ICBMs into test launch vehicles for suborbital and sounding rocket launches. The Rocket Systems Launch Program (RSLP) is part of the Space and Missile Test and Evaluation Directorate (SMC/TE) located at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.
Established by the Secretary of Defense in 1972, the RSLP program is responsible for providing suborbital launch capability for various DoD, DOE, and NASA organizations. Primary customers are AF Space Command, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and the United States Army Space and & Strategic Defense Command. Sounding rockets provide the majority of mission requirements. These boosters use excess ballistic missile assets, primarily Minuteman rocket motors.
Minuteman II provides the ICBM class of suborbital mission launch vehicles, and are used as targets and experiment platforms to deliver targets for ballistic missile defense and new concepts in weapon systems development. Contracts are in place to provide flexible and cost effective conduits to meet short term, quick response mission requirements, typically within 12-18 months. The program provides full launch service capability including mission planning, booster refurbishment, range support, launch services, and post flight analysis.
The RSLP charter comes from SECDEF memorandum, Support of Service Development Flight Test Requirement, dated 21 Aug 1972. In this memorandum, RSLP is designated as "A single Agency providing launch vehicle support for three services on a cost reimbursable basis." In addition to this charter, RSLP has received OSD approval to provide orbital launch with excess ballistic missile assets on a case-by-case basis with the approval by the Secretary of Defense. The RSLP receives its direction from the Silo-Based ICBM Integrated Weapon System Management Program Management Directive 2313(8), dated 26 March 1997. The direction comes from Appendix I: Rocket Systems Launch Program (RSLP).
Advances in satellite manufacturing technology have allowed the size and mass of satellites to diminish without loss of capability. As a result, the desire for reliable, low-cost spacelift systems, particularly for small and micro Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) satellites, has increased in recent years. However, finding shared space on some commercial or larger launch vehicles for specific orbits is not always possible or cost effective.
The Department of Defense (DOD) has a long history of using small satellites to support new components testing prior to incorporation into large-scale operational satellite programs. In addition, a number of small and micro RDT&E satellite programs within other US Government agencies could be supported. For the testing of long-range ballistic missile defense systems, the DOD needs low-cost target vehicles for realistic threat simulations. Other Government missions may potentially require short-duration, sub-orbital flights for experimental purposes.
Under the Orbital/Sub-Orbital Program (OSP), the USAF developed a new family of launch vehicles using surplus Minuteman (MM) II and Peacekeeper (PK) Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) rocket motors (along with commercial upper stages) to support orbital launches of both small and micro-satellites, and sub-orbital-trajectory missions. The OSP provides low-cost, reliable launch services for Government-sponsored payloads using flight-proven hardware and software that are currently available, with a demonstrated success record.
Consistent with the National Space Transportation Policy of 1994, OSP launches will support only US Government payloads or those missions sponsored through US Government agencies. In addition, the US Secretary of Defense must approve each mission to ensure that program launches do not compete with, and are not detrimental to, the commercial space launch industry.
US policy allows retired ICBM rocket motors to be used to launch military payloads, a service that Orbital provides under contract with the Air Force. But under a law dating back tot he 1990s, the decommissioned missiles cannot be used as launch vehicles to fly commercial satellites. In APril 2016 Orbital said it wanted the rocket motors to build a Minotaur 4 launch vehicle capable of lifting about four times the weight of small rockets like LauncherOne, which is being developed by Richard Bransonís California-based Virgin Galactic.
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