The Air Force and space launch industry are hoping to design a new rocket booster engine in an effort to curtail massive price hikes in the cost of solid fuel rockets -- you know, the giant engines that drive the service's satellites into space.
Basically, the service, and the rest of the military space community, is looking at whether a new generation of upper stage boosters -- the motors that provide the final kick to get satellites out of Earth's atmosphere and into their extraterrestrial orbits -- can be developed to offset a looming price spike in the cost of rockets that may be much as 40-percent, the Air Force's top space officer told DoDBuzz after a March 22 breakfast with reporters in Washington.
"Left unchecked, we believe that price [for rocket motors] will go up somewhere on the order of 40 percent," said Air Force Space Command chief, Gen. William Shelton, during the breakfast. "Let's just take an Atlas V, that's probably on the order of $180 million dollars, and [add] 40-percent above that. A lot of the driver is the engines, in particular, the upper stage engines are more expensive."
The Pentagon has been worried about increasing cost of solid rocket motors for several years now. As the U.S. space budget has declined, the cost of producing large rockets has climbed due to the reduction in rockets being purchased by the government.
This has left the rocket and rocket motor manufacturers scrambling to get rid of excess infrastructure and personnel, Shelton said.
"Some of these suppliers have much more infrastructure, because of the shrinking of the industry across the board, than they need and it's driving the prices" higher, said the four-star general. "They're trying to consolidate their business and get down to efficient operations, it just takes time."
This problem isn't just hitting the Air Force. Last year, the Navy saw the cost of Trident ballistic missile engines rise by 85 percent after NASA's Constellation rocket program was cut.
“If you look at it in terms of pure volume, NASA is about 70 plus percent of the solid rocket industry, we’re about 20 percent,” Rear Adm. Terry Benedict, the Navy’s chief of strategic systems, told lawmakers last April. “It would take ten Trident motor, first, second and third stages in order to make one solid rocket motor booster for the Shuttle. So, in pure volume, NASA’s decision is one that causes the overhead [cost of building the motors] to be spread amongst the remaining programs.”
About 60-percent of the cost associated with the increase in making Trident motors came from the fact that the engine-makers had excess infrastructure and personnel following the cuts in government space spending, Benedict said.