by DAVID AXE
Twenty years after the U.S. Air Force first retired its SR-71 spy plane, and 11 years after a handful of the Mach-3 jets was briefly returned to military service, the military has finally identified a candidate to replace the famed Blackbird. The Pentagon’s secretive National Security Space Office is navigating a minefield of budgetary perils, bureaucratic expectations and industry inhibitions, to turn a experimental, civilian “space plane” into a high-speed, responsive reconnaissance craft.
The late May roll-out, by innovative California aerospace firm Scaled Composites, of the four-engine “Eve” aircraft — the mother-ship for the so-called “Space Ship Two” rocket ship — offers the first glimpse of this potential, future Blackbird replacement. Scaled’s work with cheap, re-usable, low-orbit “space planes” — and efficient mother-ships for launching them, from high altitude — forms the theoretical basis of the Space Office’s so-called Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion concept.
The concept is more complex than the SR-71, but potentially cheaper. Rather than the Blackbird’s single, fast vehicle, SUSTAIN would be two vehicles. The jet-powered mother-ship, based in the U.S. or at a secure, overseas facility, would loft a smaller, rocket-powered “lander” to high altitude — say, 50,000 feet — before launching it. The rocket would quickly boost the lander to an altitude of around 400,000 feet, just shy of the orbital threshold. On completing its mission, the lander would deploy air brakes and spiral down to a landing.
While the SUSTAIN lander would be as fast as the SR-71, reaching up to Mach 3, its major advantage is altitude. The SR-71 operated at up to 80,000 feet — higher than most of today’s surveillance drones and manned planes, such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk and U-2 Dragon Lady, but not high enough to render unnecessary the direct over-flight of enemy territory. At five times the Blackbird’s altitude, the SUSTAIN lander provides an unparalleled, responsive platform for sophisticated, long-range cameras. “If you’re up there for five to 10 minutes, you could take a high-resolution image of something that’s out on the horizon — and you don’t necessarily have to over-fly what you want to image,” says Lieutenant Colonel Paul Damphousse, the Marine Corps officer in charge of SUSTAIN’s concept development.
Despite its potentially blistering performance, SUSTAIN need not be too costly. Scaled’s commercial space planes and mother-ships are designed for frequent, economical, usage. They boast “no-frills” designs. White Knight even uses the same J85 engines as the F-5 fighter.
Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelet Lafontant conceived of SUSTAIN, in 2002, as a manned transport variant of Scaled’s Space Ship One space plane and White Knight mother-ship — the progenitors of Space Ship Two and Eve, respectively. Since then, Lafontant has retired, and Damphousse, at the Space Office, has taken the lead on the concept. Under Damphousse, SUSTAIN has evolved from a manned transport, to a multi-purpose vehicle, with an emphasis on fast-response reconnaissance, among other missions.
Today, SUSTAIN is just a concept, with major hurdles between it and day-to-day military service. The industrial base for space planes is immature, the development cost is potentially high and to many key officials in the Pentagon, the very idea of a military space plane, is laughable. To overcome these obstacles, Damphousse is emphasizing a commercial, off-the-shelf approach, hoping to capitalize on the work of civilian entrepreneurs, instead of pouring billions of dollars into a traditional, military, research and development program.
“There’s a lot of folks hanging their hopes on the fact that space tourism could be one of applications that helps enable that [cheap, military] access to space,” Damphousse says. Thanks to Scaled’s work, a military space plane is looking more and more feasible, even to skeptics, he adds. “The story is becoming much better defined at this point. That helps to subside the giggle factor.”
Damphousse has spent the last two years drumming up interest in SUSTAIN, in industry and government. He says the next step is to build a SUSTAIN demonstrator, that might look a lot like Scaled’s Space Ship Two-Eve combination, but “militarized.” That demonstrator would have to be built by private firms, using very little government funding, according to Damphousse. He says he can “incentivize” industry to invest in a demonstrator, by allowing them to also use the vehicle to advance their own ideas and technologies. Lafontant says a demonstrator is technically feasible, after 2012.
SUSTAIN represents a new way of developing a new system, for a very old mission. The very first military aircraft were observation planes, used to peer over enemy lines. That’s a practice that arguably reached its apogee with the SR-71. Today, robotic drones perform a similar mission, but these slow, low-altitude vehicles are optimized for tactical, rather than strategic roles. U-2s and satellites comprise the backbone of current, U.S. strategic reconnaissance capability, but the U-2s are old and vulnerable, and satellites are constrained by their orbits. SUSTAIN would restore the Pentagon’s ability to photograph a defended target, very quickly and at short notice.
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