NRC Cautions Against Substantial Investments in AF Reusable Booster System, But R&D OK

NRC Cautions Against Substantial Investments in AF Reusable Booster System, But R&D OK

The National Research Council (NRC) issued a report today cautioning the Air Force against making substantial investments in reusable launch vehicles, while endorsing continued research and advanced technology development.

The Reusable Booster System:  Review and Assessment was conducted by the NRC under the auspices of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) at the request of Air Force Space Command (AFSC).    The Reusable Booster System (RBS) concept would have a reusable first stage and expendable second stage.  The first stage would use a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) mode for recovery and reuse after separation from the second stage.  The Air Force Research Laboratory and Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center have been working on RBS technologies and concepts with the goal of reducing the cost of launching payloads into orbit compared to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) in use today (Delta IV and Atlas V).

AFSC asked the NRC to assess the criteria and assumptions used to make the business case that RBS would “dramatically” reduce space launch costs.   The NRC study committee, chaired by David van Wie of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL), questioned whether methods used to estimate the cost of the RBS were sufficient to accurately reflect RBS life-cycle costs.  It also found that the RBS business case did not take into account “new entrant” commercial launch providers — like SpaceX — and other factors.

“The RBS business case is incomplete because it does not adequately account for new entrant commercial providers of launch capabilities, the impacts of single-source providers, Air Force need for independent launch sources for meeting the assured-access-to-space requirement, and technical risk.  The cost uncertainties associated with those factors do not allow a business case for RBS to be closed at this time.” 

Along with other concerns, the committee concluded that it would be premature for the Air Force to begin large-scale RBS development activities.  However, it “strongly” endorsed research and advanced technology development of related technologies and made six recommendations on how to conduct those efforts, particularly that “launch responsiveness should be a major attribute of any reusable launch system.”

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