Cheap Rocket Launches May Be Key To National Defense

For military satellites, redundancy leads to resilience

X-37B Upright
X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle
X-37B UprightU.S. Air Force

Space is hard, which also makes it really expensive. A Delta IV Heavy rocket, like the one currently sitting on a launchpad in Cape Canaveral, costs around $375 million to get its payload into space. The expensive launch lends itself to large, do-it-all satellites, which in turn could be seen as big and expensive targets to a nation's enemies. Space is, fortunately, a mostly peaceful domain, but missiles fired from Earth could easily take out important military and communications satellites. What can we do to prevent an act of space war from crippling the American military and public?

According to Lieutenant Colonel Peter Garretson, an instructor at the Air Force’s Air University, the solution is to make sure America dominates the field of “Ultra-Low-Cost Access to Space,”or ULCATS. Garretson wants to see a future where America can cheaply and reliably put new satellites into orbit. He's light on details as to how to do that, exactly, besides mentioning that military funding in technology in the Cold War improved America's technological advantage. Supposedly further funding of SpaceX's and Blue Origin's reusable rockets will lead to a ten-fold decrease in launch cost, which the military can then take advantage of.

"[An] agile and responsive launch system enables rapid reconstitution should an adversary seek to remove our eyes, ears and communication relays in space," Garretson writes. "Even better, the knowledge that such an attack will be ineffective because of our ability to reconstitute serves as a form of deterrence by denial."

Garretson is writing in military jargon to a military audience, but the implications matter for anyone who’s relied on GPS or watched satellite television. The military built reconnaissance, navigation, and communications tools and put them in orbit, and millions of people rely on them every day. Because the American military built it, someone who wants to limits its ability to function could attack satellites, and then disrupt much more than just the military.

One way of making sure that doesn’t happening, or that if it does, the damage is minimal, is by putting a lot of satellites into space quickly. Garretson’s paper expresses no views besides his own, but it’s a useful starting point for thinking about space strategy.