The National Aerospace Plane

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Testimony by

FRANK J. GAFFNEY, JR.,
Director of THE CENTER FOR SECURITY POLICY

Before a JOINT HEARING OF THE
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES COMMITTEES
ON ARMED SERVICES AND SCIENCE, SPACE AND TECHNOLOGY

2 August 1989

(Washington, D.C.): Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committees, it is a distinct privilege to be allowed to contribute once more to your deliberations about a major national issue, the National Aerospace Plane (NASP). I am especially pleased to be able to do so in the company of three old friends and distinguished experts on this issue — Larry Skantz, Bill Graham and Bruce Abel. I know these gentlemen to be among the most knowledgeable authorities on the technical issues involved in this program. My own testimony will, I hope, complement theirs by focussing on some of the more significant policy aspects of the NASP program as they have developed in recent months.

In this regard, I would like to include in the record at the conclusion of my testimony not only the full text of my prepared remarks but also several papers concerning NASP that have been released recently by the Center for Security Policy. The first of these, entitled Defining a U.S. Space Policy: Getting from Here to There, summarizes the views of the Center’s Board of Advisors and associates — including Dr. George Keyworth and Gen. James Abrahamson — about the "way ahead" for U.S. space policy and programs. You will note that we accord NASP the highest priority in this "road-map."

The second paper, called The Bush Administration Must Take the Initiative to Get the National Aerospace Plane off the Ground, builds upon the first and provides some insights into the machinations that went into the Administration’s recent "high-G" maneuvers on NASP. I will draw upon both of these documents in my testimony this morning.

Getting Our Priorities Straight

The Center for Security Policy believes that U.S. space policy and programs should be guided by the following priorities:

  • Assured, advantaged access to space must be the preeminent task for the immediate future.
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  • Extension and expanded exploitation of space must be pursued through the development and deployment of new technology over the near- to medium-term.
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  • Exploration of space and the creation of the requisite infrastructure must be the longer-term goals of America’s space program.

 

My sense is that this evolutionary strategy is roughly the same as that envisioned by President Bush’s newly articulated space agenda. I want to emphasize, however, that we believe that — unless adequate resources and management attention are invested in the first of these — our ability to accomplish the latter two will be seriously compromised.

In that sense, the Bush Administration’s commitment to the NASP program may be, and I believe should be, viewed as a litmus test of its seriousness about realizing the rest of its ambitious program for the space station, a manned base on the moon and the exploration of Mars. If we are unable or unwilling to pursue the National Aerospace Plane — a real and near-term program with immediate and tangible funding requirements — the skepticism with which the longer-term, more exotic aspects of the Bush plan were greeted would seem fully warranted.

The Necessity for NASP

Consistent with the Center’s ordering of U.S. space policy requirements, we believe that the highest priority must be given to the development and operational fielding of the National Aerospace Plane. At the risk of preaching to the proverbial choir, given this Committee’s extraordinary and unwavering support for the NASP and of repeating some of the points made by my colleagues, I would like to offer the following observations about why such priority seems to us to be warranted.

First, it is no overstatement to suggest that the NASP has the potential to revolutionize America’s access to space, dramatically reducing the costs, risks and inflexibility inherent in current launch capabilities. We at the Center believe the United States can simply no longer afford to be wedded to the traditional means of putting payloads and people into space. The mind-boggling expense, the riskiness and the fragility of our existing space launch capabilies were hammered home to all of us in the aftermath of the Challenger explosion. An infrastructure with these characteristics cannot be expected reliably to support even a modest space program — let alone the ambitious one mapped out by President Bush and the National Space Council.

Second, and related to the first, the National Aerospace Plane can contribute greatly to reestablishing U.S. preeminence in space, for civilian as well as military purposes. Today as never before, the United States faces strong competition for this position. It is not overstating the case to suggest that the technologies being explored in the NASP program are likely to be determinative of future comparative advantage in the aerospace industry.

What is more, in addition to its direct returns, NASP also will provide technological spin-offs of virtually incalculable value to other civilian and military applications. Its pathfinding research into materials, propulsion, computational, avionics and fuel technologies — among others — are essential to the future excellence of American industry in a variety of fields.

Finally, the reemergence of American primacy in space that the National Aerospace Plane represents will do much to restore popular and Congressional support for this vital area of national endeavor. It goes without saying that, during a period of budgetary austerity, such support may prove the difference between viable and unfunded programs. Furthermore, the value over time to this country of engendering the enthusiasm that attends an audacious and innovative undertaking of this kind is real — if difficult to quantify. For example, as this Committee well knows, such programs have in the past stimulated great interest and enrollment in engineering and science programs, with long-term benefits for the nation.

Getting Serious About NASP

For these reasons, we at the Center for Security Policy are convinced that the National Aerospace Plane must become a high profile, "national" program funded at a level determined by the maturity of the associated technology. The recent history of the NASP program — the bureaucratic equivalent of the perils of Pauline — has shown, however, that, despite presidential interest in it, the aerospace plane has not enjoyed such priority thus far.

I very much regret the decision initially adopted by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to reduce the Defense Department’s contribution to NASP in FY1990 and to eliminate it in subsequent years. His action was understandable, given the difficult budgetary pressures with which he is obliged to contend and the outrageous Air Force practice of "gold-watching" this program — cutting it in the service’s budget submissions in the expectation that others would restore its funds by adding to the Air Force’s account.

The Defense Department’s cut, nonetheless, signalled a critical lack of support for the program that has already had deleterious effects on industry’s confidence in its future prospects. It also meant that, when the National Space Council — to its credit — resuscitated the program, the NASP was "behind the power curve:" the best that could be done was to restore part of its earlier funding, to oblige the Defense Department to reassume its share of the management responsibility and to stretch out the development schedule.

Thus, while I support the Space Council’s decision to concentrate the NASP effort on research and development of the X-30, leaving exploration of mission applications to a parallel — but not pacing — effort, I profoundly regret the fact that the program is no longer driven by technology. Instead, it is driven by the availability of funds.

I will leave the arguments over the maturity of the technology and the level of risk associated with a more aggressive program to my technically competent colleagues. I would simply observe that — from the standpoint of a jaded policy practitioner — Secretary Rice’s argument that the restructured NASP program is "progress driven" does not ring true. It is, for example, a fact that the amount of money restored to the aerospace plane after the program was resurrected is exactly the amount the Air Force could allocate without having to seek additional funds from the Office of the Secretary of Defense or its sister services. This smacks of development being paced by funding, not by "progress."

Where Do We Go From Here?

I applaud the Congress’ strong advocacy of the National Aerospace Plane. I am convinced that your leadership helped to prevent the outright termination of the program. What is now up for grabs is whether the NASP will be permitted to realize its potential — in the efficient and timely way our national security and interests require.

We at the Center for Security Policy believe it imperative that the technology involved in the NASP be pursued as vigorously as the state of the art will permit. Not the least reason for doing so is our belief that the aerospace plane can — and must — be available for consideration as a contender for the follow-on to the space shuttle. Unfortunately, it would appear that the restructured schedule, with its two and half year slip in reaching Phase III, will preclude such consideration.

In order to ensure that the NASP realizes its full potential, we would suggest the following steps be taken:

  • Congress should stipulate that the aerospace plane be pursued on a schedule that is truly driven by the maturity of relevant technologies, not constrained by funding. Realization of this aircraft’s potential must be seen as a litmus test of the Bush Administration’s commitment to a real, rather than rhetorical, space program.
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  • Toward this end, the National Space Council’s decisions to simplify the research task by concentrating on an X-vehicle and to streamline procurement procedures should be strongly endorsed.
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  • By the same token, however, the requirement to incorporate unmanned options into the X-30 design — a requirement I understand was imposed for the most petty of bureaucratic reasons — that will add to the cost and complexity of the vehicle should be eliminated.
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  • Congress should hold the executive branch’s feet to the fire on development of the NASP by indicating that it expects the aerospace plane to be pursued in such a manner as to ensure that it can be a contender for the mission of follow-on to the shuttle.
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  • Strong support should also be given to efforts to identify and elaborate mission applications for the NASP. While such issues should not slow pursuit of the X-30 technology, it is imperative that work on missions and operational users be given priority — if parallel — attention.
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  • Finally, Congress should be very chary about the growing sentiment for international cooperation on space programs. This general observation is particularly true of the aerospace plane, whose technologies will be of such vital importance to U.S. security and commercial interests for generations to come.
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