Our recent RAND report on the global heavy lift launch market highlights the potential for a near term (2022–2025) shortage of launch vehicles needed to lift U.S. defense and intelligence satellites to orbit. These satellites are the eyes, ears, networks and timekeepers of U.S. armed services, and an inability to launch them in times of need could compromise national security.
While our report describes this potential risk and recommendations for mitigating it, in this post we reflect on how the United States came to this juncture. At root, the national space security (NSS) launch story is one of delayed investment in critical infrastructure and the perils of magical thinking regarding the ability to scale deployment of critical services—whether launch systems or medical supplies.
The Atlas and Delta launch vehicles that are the historic workhorses of national security launch were designed as ICBMs in the 1950s and later converted to launch vehicles to support U.S. efforts to put a man on the moon. Although upgraded many times since—for example the Delta used today is the fourth major redesign—government and private investment in new vehicles largely focused on “reusable space planes” in the last three decades of the 20th century.
Government investment produced the space transportation system (i.e., the space shuttle) used for both government and commercial launch until the Challenger accident in 1986. Private investment then surged in the 1990s as firms pursued the shuttle's former market share but dried up when projected demand from proliferated low earth orbit constellations collapsed in 1999. (end of excerpt)
Click here for the full story, on the Rand Corp. website.