China Versus the U.S. In Orbital Space

By Sue Ghosh Stricklett

The 21st century battlefield is rapidly unfolding as data-driven warfare rather than manpower driven. Multiple satellites and probes in orbital space provide real-time data to an individual soldier in today’s frontlines.

Dominance in the data-driven battlefield of the future is fueling the space ambitions of emerging powers such as China. In this race, Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLV) are viewed as a disruptive technology that may catapult China to a major power player.

Space technologies have long served as a critical infrastructure for combat operations, particularly in surveillance and reconnaissance missions. However, dispersed across the Air Force and Army, development and acquisition of space technologies have been intermittent and haphazard. With an eye towards Chinese ambitions in orbital space, the U.S. Space Force is the Trump Administration’s significant initiative to reorganize and unify space operations under a separate unified command.

In a recent interview, at Colorado’s Peterson Air Force Base, a Space Command officer remarked: “America’s superiority in space is why the 170 pound U.S. solider in Afghanistan is so much more lethal than the 170 pound enemy soldier he faces. The American soldier can look down at a screen and see the enemy on the other side of the mountain.

The U.S. military has so much more information than its adversaries — provided by satellites, GPS, and other sophisticated systems.” Another officer added: “Our adversaries see space as a potential warfighting domain” and while Russia has always understood the importance of space, “it’s really China that’s growing incredibly [fast].”

Some industry observers assert that innovation in Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLV), intended to allow reuse of part or all of the launch system, may secure American space-superiority similar to the innovations in aviation responsible for America’s air-superiority since World War II.

They argue that the “reusability” feature of RLVs lowers the cost of spaceflight when compared to expendable systems and give the U.S. a key advantage. Specifically, the increased frequency of launches due to the global demand for satellite launch services will lower the long-term operating costs of reusable systems enough to offset their higher development costs.

Of course, the contrary assertion is that the projected cost-savings of RLVs over expendable systems is not well established. Indeed, the first reusable vehicle to reach orbital space, NASA‘s Space Shuttle, was intended to reduce cost below the expendable launch systems but ended up being too expensive.

NASA veterans point to the refurbishing and recertification costs that made reuse more expensive than manufacturing new engines. NASA veterans further concluded that the frequency of launch does not appear to exist to justify the significant development and utilization cost of RLVs. The government ended the Shuttle program in 2011.

A legitimate concern, however, is that America’s early advantage in space may be lost due to production and deployment failures. For example, though the Wright Flyer was tested at Kitty Hawk between 1900 and 1902, and, according to Air & Space Magazinewas the “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard,” but at the start of World War I in 1914, the United States military had no suitable military aircraft and had to purchase French and British models.

Recent launches of Space X’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy RLVs have attracted public fascination in space, as NASA once did. A dozen countries, including China, have entered the race to build their own RLV capability. These countries are emboldened by the global demand for low earth orbit satellite launch services and the RLV’s promise of a low-cost operation.

However, RLVs that have reached orbital space remain an elite club that includes the governments of the United States, the former Soviet Union, and two U.S. private corporations, Space X and Blue Origin.

A Chinese RLV, known as the Shenlong Space Plane, was first reported in the Chinese media in 2007 with images indicating a reusable design. In 2011, Chinese media further reported the Shenlong’s first successful sub-orbital flight. The Shenlong has yet to reach orbital space.

However, recognizing China’s outsized ambition and lavish budget, the threat of a Chinese challenge to the U.S. space-superiority must be taken seriously.

Building a successful RLV that reaches orbital space is both difficult and capital-intensive. After fourteen years and significant investments in the Falcon rockets, SpaceX claims to have lowered costs for launch-service to customers by thirty percent over expendable systems.

Industry analysts dispute this claim.

ARK Invest states: “in order to land the rocket back where it started for re-use, it must save 30% of its fuel. If the fuel were used on its ascent, the rocket could propel a larger payload into orbit. As a result, when launch costs are compared on a performance basis, reusable rockets do not offer as dramatic a price decrease as one might expect.

Since this reusable approach is more time consuming, it will also reduce overall production numbers and thus push costs higher. When accounting for these points of information, retro propulsion will likely not save any money, all while bringing added vulnerabilities and opportunity for failure during the increased flying time.”

Launch vehicle manufacturers agree. According to Forbes, “some companies like Rocket Lab say that the economies of scale that they will achieve by building more expendable launch vehicles will outweigh any savings from reusing rockets.”

The China National Space Agency suggests that it can do better in cost recovery than SpaceX. While Space X’s rockets land vertically on ground pads or barge-like drone ships in the middle of the ocean, for China, “parachutes would launch on the booster after it separates from the other stages of the rocket. A guidance system could be used to control movement, making sure the rocket component lands where it’s supposed to. Then more parachutes would launch to slow it for landing and an airbag would deploy right before when it hits the ground.”

Emerging from these discussions is that the marketplace should determine which system, reusable or expendable, is the best approach that offers the lowest price to customers of launch services.

Besting China’s central planners in picking winners and losers is ill-advised.

However, at the 2018 NASA Advisory Council meeting, Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator appointed by President Trump, appeared to do just that. He surprised industry veterans in his full-throated support of reusable rockets built by SpaceX and Blue Origin as the torch-bearer for human space exploration.

Mr. Birdenstine borrowed from Elon Musk’s rhetoric in the cost-savings claims: “Imagine if you flew here across the country to [NASA Ames] in a 737 and when the mission was over, you threw the airplane away.

“How many of you would have flown here?” 

He praised “reusability” as a necessary virtue because of their “sustainability,” another borrowed buzzword.

He made no mention of NASA’s own expendable launch system, under development for a decade with a billion dollar price tag, or the contractors involved – Boeing and Northrop Grumman’s SLS rocket and Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft.

The fact is that the U.S. Government is not in the rocket business since there is a robust commercial marketplace. Rather than singling out any one company or contractor for favoritism, U.S. Government agencies should look for ways to deregulate and lower market entry barriers. Deregulation should also ensure that competition is the key driver for innovation and lower prices.

Finally, if increased frequency of launches is needed to lower the long-term operating costs of reusable and expendable launch systems alike, then easing the regulatory restrictions on the export of launch services is needed to meet global demand.

Sue Ghosh Stricklett is an attorney (Member of the D.C. Bar) specializing in national security law.  She is a widely published freelance author on topical issues concerning U.S. defense and foreign affairs.

This article was first published by our partner Real Clear Defense on October 3, 2018.