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Why Doesn't Air Force Use Cheap, Reusable Rockets?


The Pentagon is more focused on the supremacy of U.S. satellite technology than how the spacecraft are vaulted into space, at least for now, an official said.

That's one of the reasons military hasn't yet bought into reusable rocket technology that some experts say could save the department significant cash.

During an event Monday hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Douglas Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, was asked how the department might encourage the Air Force to move forward with innovative, reusable rocket technology, instead of the service launching rockets every few months on an expendable -- and expensive -- vehicle.

"I don't know that I would call it a problem. I would call it a condition that we have right now," Loverro said. "That condition is predicated on the fact that we haven't found an economic use in military space yet for responsive reusable launch."

Commercial companies have already proved the concept of reusable rockets. Jeff Bezos' private spaceflight company, Blue Origin, this year relaunched, reignited and touched down rockets multiple times. SpaceX was the first to pioneer the concept of rocket reusability when in 2015 it returned to Earth a rocket that delivered a payload to orbit.

Yet while the Air Force this year signed a deal with the California-based company headed by Elon Musk, it hasn't stipulated using reusable launchers to deploy national security payloads.

And part of the reason is because of risk.

SpaceX's costs are attractive -- its Falcon 9 reusable rocket variant is priced at between $42 million and $61 million each, according to an estimate from Space News. Compare that to the roughly $375 million cost of the expendable Delta IV Heavy rocket the Air Force uses for some launches, according to Popular Science.

But SpaceX is perceived as willing to take risks to push the envelop. And that image isn't helped by setbacks like last month's explosion of a Falcon 9 on a launchpad.

Loverro stressed that for now the military and its commercial partners should focus on "what they're bringing into orbit."

"I often view launch as the most exciting, but frankly, the most boring part of any space mission. It's exciting if you've sat on the launch pad," he said, "and that excitement sometimes tells us that's the most important part of the space mission -- it's not. That is a trucking operation."

The current launch process best fits "the current space architectures that we have," Loverro said. "We don't have a condition of launch today that reflects the fact that we can't do something. It's that we don't need to do something."

But the minute the U.S. government will "need to do it," either commercially or militarily, Loverro said he is fully confident that the creative players already dabbling in the science will come forward with solutions.

"If they don't get there on a federally funded Air Force base, they'll get there on a state-funded launch base, which is the way airports compete. And that's a much better model than how we compete on [launches] today," he said.  

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