January 31, 2013
“Disaggregation” is the word you want on your bingo card if you’re following the military satellite business these days. After spending decades focused on aggregation — that is, packing as many capabilities as they can onto one satellite to get the most bang for their buck in a single launch — the military is starting to think about reversing this trend. Disaggregation, then, is sending up less complex systems in smaller packages, but larger quantities. Threats of budget sequestration have allowed supporters, who argue this strategy will cut costs, to really turn up the volume.
Yesterday, the George C. Marshall Institute and the TechAmerica Space Enterprise Council held a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. as a way to turn an idea into a full-blown conversation. The U.S. Air Force has already decided that 2015 is the go or no-go time for disaggregating two important space missions: secure communications (which includes nuclear command and control) and weather forecasting. Representatives from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Horizons Strategy Group (a consultant on security technology) spoke on the panel, along with the former director of space policy at the National Security Council.
There are three primary arguments for disaggregation: resiliency, promoting “tech refresh,” and affordability. A constellation of disaggregated satellites would be more resilient because if one was destroyed (by an enemy or otherwise), it would only affect that one system; whereas destruction of one of the current, larger milsats would be a massive blow to a whole host of systems. It would promote a constant refreshing of technology because lead times (and lifetimes) would be much shorter. As Horizons CEO Josh Hartman noted, instead of a satellite taking eight years to build, with a lifetime of up to 25 years — which inevitably saddles users with decades-old tech — a move to small, simple satellites that take only a year or two to build would let designers and engineers stay more current. And the potentially lower cost, meaning lower risk, of these satellites would let the engineers “push the envelope” and take chances on new technology.
Affordability seems like the easiest point to make, and this is hardly the first time someone has argued for smaller, cheaper military satellites. But not everyone agrees. Lockheed’s Marc Berkowitz held the mild dissenter’s seat at the table: “The assertion that disaggregation will save taxpayer money needs to be proven. More platforms means more launches to get them to orbit.” And while losing one small satellite is better than losing one massive satellite, Berkowitz pointed out that enemies might consider the risk for retribution lower for taking one down. Furthermore, the biggest obstacle toward disaggregation right now is simply that there isn’t really a plan for the transition, nor many models that actually analyze the resilience and cost factors. Essentially, supporters are just going by their instincts that smaller and faster is by definition better.
Hartman from Horizons explained that there are steps the military can take now to test some of these theories, most of which involve taking a current spacecraft that needs upgrades or repairs, and instead of fixing it, disaggregating it into smaller replacement satellites. Between now and 2015 the Pentagon can work on creating reliable models, based on these kinds of experiments, before deciding that swarms of smallsats are the way to go.
January 11, 2013
As the U.S. government was gearing up to send the first man into space in the 1950s, questions abounded as to how people would survive in this foreign environment: What kind of vehicle would best protect them? How should environmental controls be configured? Will people even survive the radiation levels, unprotected by the Earth’s atmosphere?
One way to prepare for the journey was to send biological material — plants and animals — to near-space on a balloon, with various instruments, and measure the effects. In 1955, doctor and writer Webb Haymaker followed around a Navy crew as they launched balloons from Minnesota and raced to recover the live payloads. He published the account in what was likely one of the more exciting articles to appear in the journal Military Medicine.
“Operation Stratomouse,” as Haymaker dubbed it, began with the biggest foil of balloon launches: the weather. The many last-minute “no-gos” finally started to turn the anxious crew members against each other. “Once, after a favorable forecast had ushered in utterly impossible weather, and a crew member had remarked that ‘that crowd of parasitic bandits over in the weather station ought to be sent up in one of the balloons,’ [launching chief Ed] Lewis squelched him by commenting quietly that he would be dispatching them in the wrong direction!”
Mice, those perennial lab creatures, were among the payloads to be studied for any effect from cosmic rays. Project lead Otto Winzen noted that although they had “sent balloons up for many purposes, even some with rockets dangling from them which are fired into the upper stratosphere when the balloons reach 80,000 feet… the flights to come have a particular significance because of their living cargoes.”
And those living cargoes required special packing:
They were in a flat wire mesh cage, each in its own compartment, gnawing away on pieces of raw potato, which would quench their thirst on the long cruise. The cage was placed on the platform which covers the lower hemisphere of the gondola. Then the two hemispheres were sealed airtight by means of 134 bolts and nuts, and around the sphere went a thick shell of insulating plastic and over that a layer of shiny aluminum foil to reflect the sun’s rays. The oxygen tanks were strapped into place, and filled to capacity. The gondola purred from the vibration of its cooling fans like something alive.
While certainly risky for the near-space-traveling mice, it wasn’t always a safe venture for the human crew, either.
[Balloon] Evelyn A leaped skyward, giving off an agonizing, crashing, echoing sound. As she moved swiftly in the direction of the truck, a gust of wind caused her to hesitate; her long nylon rope then lashed out to one side in an undulating movement as though it were a whip being cracked. Agile little Herk Ballman, standing at the level of the beacon, just managed to jump out of its way. An old hand at balloon launching, he had always been successful at outwitting a rampaging balloon. His close call brought to mind a launching in Europe in which one crewman had had his scalp ripped from one end to the other by a rising gondola, and another his forearm mangled and his shoulder dislocated by a swerving nylon rope which had momentarily looped itself around his arm.
Once aloft, the 175 foot-diameter balloon was quite the sight:
“There’s something eloquent about a gigantic balloon when being launched, whether it slips away tranquilly into the unknown or goes charging forward like an enraged elephant,” Winzen went on to say. “Each has a personality of its own and every one is a solo performer. From where I stand on the launch platform, I can catch from one balloon the satiny swish of a wedding gown as a breeze twists it, and from another the full resilience of a four-master after it has lurched suddenly before a gust of wind.”
The team had a C-47 at their disposal to chase the balloon, which would travel hundreds of miles away, giving the gondola payload extended exposure to near-space. Meanwhile, calls of flying saucer sightings came pouring in to newspapers and even the FBI as the balloon floated over farms and nearby towns. But Haymaker was taken with the romance of the sight:
Brilliantly lighted by the setting sun, she looks like the evening star. A little later, having taken on a harvest moon hue, she is outshone by Venus. A pity that she is expendable! Tomorrow, after she has accomplished her noble mission, a segment of her wall will be ripped out by a line attached to the top of the falling parachute, and she will wallow and sink, like a harpooned whale, and ultimately be found in farmers’ refrigerators, reduced to vegetable bags.
The Navy boys were just as excited, but less moony-eyed, as one sergeant observed “that she is ’tighter’n a bullfighter’s pants,’ and should be belching off some gas soon.” Eventually, the gondolas were cut from the balloons and parachuted to the ground, where the crew frantically searched for it before time — that is, the oxygen — ran out. “They are looking for congregations of cows, who are curious about gondolas, and for a line-up of cars along a road, for farmers, too, take advantage of extraordinary diversions such as this.”
Sometimes it was good news, such as when the gondola from Evelyn A was recovered: “There they were, all 60 mice cocking their eyes at the warden and me as though asking for food.” Other times, it was total loss, such as when the gondola on Emma V didn’t sever properly, the payload clinging on far too long for the animals to survive. Emma V continued on its flight, making newspapers around the region as the crew tried anything to get it down:
Our Emma V was described as an unruly giant. The following morning the account was continued, the caption reading, ”Balloon Dips But Evades Plane Guns”… On the fifth morning there was this surprising announcement: ”Wandering Balloon is First Satellite.” The Emma V was sighted over Bathhurst, New Brunswick, and was headed over the Atlantic for ”a high-altitude European tour.”
Haymaker grandly concluded his story about the ballooners, championing their role in future spaceflight:
Up there, in the as yet hostile and forbidding fringes of space, where it is always night, the ubiquitous mouse has gained a foothold. Before man can do likewise, or, indeed, pierce the stratosphere and travel through the black unknown beyond, he will continue to need balloon-borne animals as forerunners-unless, per chance, man himself is willing to serve as “guinea pig” for his fellowman.
July 24, 2012
While the world’s Olympic athletes prepare for combat in the sports arena, the British Army is preparing to handle more serious attacks, in part by placing missiles on London rooftops.
Fred Wigg Tower isn’t among London’s 20 tallest buildings. In fact, at just 17 stories, it’s barely 155 feet tall. (In contrast, London’s tallest, the Shard, is more than 1,000 feet.) But what the East London public housing project lacks in height, it makes up for with location, location, location: The building has one of the best vantage points across London’s Olympic Park.
The tower, which hosted a rooftop battery of missiles during a test deployment in early May, is one of six sites chosen to have rooftop surface-to-air missiles during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games; it’s the first time that missile batteries have been positioned inside London since World War II.
The tenants of Fred Wigg tower block went to court to stop the missiles being placed on their rooftop, arguing that the installation would make their building a target for terrorist attacks. (They lost their court case.) Says David Enright, the residents’ lawyer, in this video from July 10, “The clear implication is that the Ministry of Defence now has the power to militarize the private homes of any person in Britain, so long as they can demonstrate that there is, in their view, a matter of national security in play.”
Not everyone is dismayed by the thought of missiles dotting London’s landscape. The Telegraph reported that one Duncan Simpson posted video of himself at the controls of an anti-aircraft missile launcher on his Facebook page. “After a couple of points this evening the army kindly allowed my friend and I to have a play with their weapons of mass destruction up on Blackheath [south east London],” he wrote. The Rapier surface-to-air missile, with a range of five miles, is capable of shooting down a 747 passenger jet.
June 4, 2012
Making it easier, cheaper, and quicker to get things into orbit is the hot ticket right now. In our latest issue we cover the ongoing efforts by the Operationally Responsive Space office, working out of Kirtland Air Base in New Mexico, to make quick-launch spacecraft. DARPA’s also in that game: last week they awarded Boeing a $4.5 million contract to study airborne satellite launch systems. DARPA’s website explains:
The goal of [the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access] ALASA is to develop a significantly less expensive approach for routinely launching small satellites, with a goal of at least threefold reduction in costs compared to current military and US commercial launch costs. Currently, small satellite payloads cost more than $30,000 per pound to launch, and must share a launcher with other satellites. ALASA seeks to launch satellites on the order of 100 pounds for less than $1M total, including range support costs, to orbits that are selected specifically for each 100 pound payload.
They also note other disadvantages of fixed launch sites, like weather delays and limitations on the types of orbits available. Of course, the idea for aircraft-based launches goes back to NASA’s X-planes in the 1950s. Today, Orbital Sciences Corp. sends satellites into space with its Pegasus rocket that launches from a Lockheed-1101 Tri-Star (NASA’s NuSTAR spacecraft is scheduled for a June 13 airborne launch). And Stratolaunch Systems, the collaboration of Scaled Composites, SpaceX, and Dynetics, is in the works to take payloads up “affordably and responsibly” (and if successful, “mark the dawn of a new era of space transportation,” if they do say so themselves).
With ALASA, which has been in the works since November 2011, DARPA is looking for something a bit lighter-duty for smaller satellites — the Pegasus/Tri-Star can carry up to 1,000 pounds, while the Stratolaunch will likely be rated for payloads upwards of 100,000 pounds. And somehow, they want this launch system designed so that it requires “no recurring maintenance or support, and no specific integration to prepare for launch.” A pick-it-up-and-go system, indeed. We’ll be interested to see what Boeing comes up with by the end of their 18-month contract.
October 26, 2011
The National Reconnaissance Office recently declassified its GAMBIT and KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellite programs, and as part of the agency’s 50th anniversary celebration, allowed a HEXAGON to be displayed — for just one day — at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia.
A few days later, Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space retiree Art Jesensky wrote to us, “I have enclosed some photos and a story I wrote about the day the last HEXAGON satellite was launched. The pictures (click on the images below to see them larger) were taken by an oil company employee just offshore on an exploration platform.”
Here’s Jesensky’s account:
In April 1986, the space community and media were still reeling from the loss of the space shuttle Challenger and its seven-member crew just three months earlier, so it’s not surprising that the failed spy satellite launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on April 18 received little notice. Secrecy prevented public announcements of such launches, and information on mission success or failure was never revealed.
April 18 dawned over California’s central coast bright and beautiful—unlike many summer days when the marine fog layer rolled in off the Pacific in early afternoon, hung around all night, and didn’t burn off until noon the next day.
Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4) is about a mile from the Pacific Ocean, an ideal location for launching satellites to the south for injection into polar orbit. Known formally as Point Arguello, it is commonly referred to as South Vandenberg. SLC-4 was originally built to launch Atlas/Agenas for the GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites but was modified in the 1960s for Titan boosters. The west pad launched Titan/Agenas and the GAMBIT; the East pad launched the larger heavy-lift Titan 34D and HEXAGON recon satellites.
Lockheed built both the Agenas and HEXAGONs. As a Lockheed engineer for 25 years, I worked at SLC-4 or SLC-3, just a few miles east, testing, servicing, and launching these payloads. That day, I was huddled with about 100 other Air Force, booster, and satellite contractor personnel in the launch operations building (LOB) preparing to launch the 20th and last HEXAGON (the first of which was launched in 1971). The countdown had started the previous day and was progressing smoothly. In the final hours the complex had been cleared of all nonessential personnel, and blast doors to both the outside and the cable tunnels leading to each pad were closed and sealed. The LOB is a mere 500 yards from the pad, but was built of concrete reinforced with steel. Air conditioning systems were switched to recirculate mode and final satellite and booster checks completed. In the final minutes, range clearance was granted, all flight systems switched to internal power, and final “go”s received from contractors and the Air Force. The Titan entered automatic launch sequence. At zero, the Titan engines started, then the solid rocket motors ignited. Liftoff! Umbilicals out! As the launch vehicle clears the service tower, everyone in the control room stands up as if to see better at an athletic event. At 500 yards away, you see it, hear it, and feel it.
Less than 10 seconds after liftoff, at an altitude of 700 feet, a massive fireball blossomed. We heard what can only be described as bombs bursting. The solid rocket motors’ propellant used a rubber compound as a binder, and as they broke up, fiery chunks, some the size of Volkswagens, rained down on the complex.
The power sub-station to the complex was wiped out—we were left blind and in the dark. Communication lines were also severed, so we lost touch with the outside world. There was only quiet talking, listening and waiting. There was much apprehension on the outside about our safety. After a couple of hours someone made contact via two-way radio, but it wasn’t until four hours later that firefighters were able to gain access to the complex and open the doors to the LOB.
The scene resembled a moonscape. The fires had mostly burned themselves out except for the smoldering brush. A layer of fine gray ash covered everything. The service towers on both pads were badly burned, damaging cabling, piping, and lighting. Anything that could melt, did. The two engineering buildings on the complex were unusable.
It was determined that a burn through a seal on the side of one of the solid rocket motors caused the accident, similar to what happened to the shuttle Challenger. After over a year of repair and rehab, at a cost of over $100,000,000, the complex was finally reactivated. In 1991, as I was getting ready to retire, Lockheed and Martin were in the midst of a merger. The east pad was undergoing another major modification to fly the even larger Titan 4, and as part of that modification, all final launch operations were to be controlled from a remote location. No longer would anyone be within miles of the complex at launch.
SLC-4E went on to launch Titan 4s until 2005 when the complex was deactivated.
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