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Stewards of Space
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Sheila E. Widnall, secretary of the Air Force, Space Transportation Association, Washington, Wednesday, May 08, 1996

Defense Issues: Volume 11, Number 50-- Stewards of Space Some critics say commercial contractors should launch military satellites, but the Air Force's top official calls the mission vital to national defense and one the service won't surrender soon.


Volume 11, Number 50

Stewards of Space

Remarks prepared for delivery by Sheila E. Widnall, secretary of the Air Force, to the Space Transportation Association, Washington, May 8, 1996.

Thanks for inviting me here this morning. It gives me a chance to do two of my favorite things - talk about space and get out of the Pentagon.

Over the last few weeks, I've seen a few [news] ... articles discussing why the Cape [Canaveral, Fla.] and Vandenberg AFB [Air Force Base, Calif.] should be contractor operations and why we should eventually rely totally on commercial launch providers to put DoD satellites into space.

Apparently this same subject was discussed at a recent space symposium here in town. Now, normally I enjoy a good academic discussion which views both sides of an issue, but I believe the debate has been a bit simplistic. To me, it's not a question of turning the entire operation over to a commercial enterprise, but rather how much commercialization is feasible and prudent. I think we'll get a good handle on that question through the EELV [evolved expendable launch vehicle] competition.

As a rocket scientist, space launch is a subject that I've been working with Gen. Tom Moorman [Air Force vice chief of staff] since the day I walked through the door at the Pentagon. I can only speculate that those who would advocate total commercialization don't really understand AF [Air Force] stewardship of space. Maybe we need to tell the story a little better. So let me try.

Let's pretend for a minute. Let's say the reason I came over here this morning was to announce the Air Force is getting out of the space launch business. We've decided to rely completely on commercial launch sites, commercial boosters and commercial operators. That's it, we're leaving, we're closing Patrick [Air Force Base, Cape Canaveral] and Vandenberg, we're going to outsource space launch, and we're going to buy satellites on orbit.

Now it's your turn to pretend. Many of you here this morning are contractors. For the next few minutes, think about how you would bid your next job, whether you are a satellite builder or a launch services provider. What should you include in your bid?

For starters, if you're a launch services provider, you'll need to invest the $2 billion the Air Force planned to invest over the next 10 years developing EELV boosters, because if you can't get the cost of space launch down, no one will use your launch site. And failure to develop this next-generation capability will be a missed opportunity for America to regain market share in the global launch services competition.

Additionally, you'll need to take over and fund key range modernization programs. For example, over the next 10 years, we were planning to invest $750 million for range improvements. You'll also have to bid annual operating costs of the ranges. To put you in the ballpark, we spend $160 million to run Cape Canaveral, $75 million to run Vandenberg and $30 million for Atlas and Delta operations and maintenance each year.

And don't forget to include those "little things" the Air Force typically delivers for free or at marginal cost to you, like weather, down-range radar support, electricity, security, visitor control, safety, maintaining the roads and cutting the grass.

And don't forget people. We are using almost 5,300 Air Force-funded men and women on these two launch bases to assure U.S. access to space. They represent the American brain trust in access to space and are themselves a national asset. But we'll be taking those folks with us, so you'll have to find and train some new ones.

I'll even give you a big break on your bid. I'll sell you the launch sites at cost. We spent over a quarter of a billion dollars modifying a launch pad at Vandenberg to launch Atlas IIs. And if a quarter of a billion is the going rate for a launch pad and you consider commercial operators use four launch pads in Florida and one at Vandenberg, you only owe me $1.25 billion. These launch sites are national assets. We take great pride in maintaining them, and you can bet a key source selection criteri[on] will be how well you plan to maintain them.

So let's review the bidding. You'll need to include people, boosters, launch pads, modernization and maintenance. I think you get the picture. Your bid will be a big number.

If you're a satellite maker, you'll need cost-efficient assured access to space and undoubtedly you hope that the commercial market will organize itself to provide this capability.

Let's stop pretending. I used this illustration to give you an idea of the breadth of Air Force commitment to this nation's spacefaring status. I want everyone to understand the Air Force has been and will always be an excellent steward of America's access to space. We're also the senior partner in space launch. If the Air Force wasn't operating our launch sites, it would certainly make it harder and a lot more expensive for you commercial guys to do business.

Let me give you another example of an inaccuracy I've seen in the press. One of the trades recently quoted someone as saying "Space launch is my favorite bad news story." Now this is very old news. Maybe this was the case in 1992, but this is one area we fixed. With a lot of help from Tom Moorman, [Gen.] Joe Ashy [commander in chief, U.S. Space Command] and experts from your companies, I've worked the space launch problem hard over the last three years.

Just look at current statistics:


  • 12 Atlas launches in 12 months;
  • Four Titan launches this year;
  • We're about to launch the second Titan within a month;
  • 21 commercial Atlas launches to date;
  • 16 commercial Delta launches to date;
  • A $2 billion EELV program with a requirement to save 25 percent over the current cost, an objective to save 50 percent;
  • An EELV program which could save $5 [billion to]$10 billion through 2020.

Does this sound like a bad news story to you? If this is bad news, I'm in for some easy days at the Pentagon.

And another piece of old news I've heard is that there are "inefficiencies and duplication between AF and NRO [National Reconnaissance Office]." Perhaps this was the case five years ago, but today, it's simply overstated. The top leadership of the Department of Defense spent an incredible amount of time two years ago working the space management issue. We established the JSMB [Joint Space Management Board] and the Space Architect.

In my opinion, we currently enjoy an unprecedented degree of cooperation between AF and NRO space efforts. Clearly there needs to be more work done on joint AF and NRO architectures, but I am confident that with the management and architectural mechanisms we've established, we are making good progress. The separation that existed between the different space sectors is disappearing, and we're becoming much more interdependent.

The SBIRS [Space-based Infrared System] program is a shining example of this interagency efficiency. Titan is another, with the AF buying boosters for the NRO. We also share TT&C [telemetry, tracking and command] resources and mission data. We fly payloads on each other's satellites. Does this sound inefficient to you? Of course not, and we see even more opportunities for cooperation in the future. But rather than focus on this old news, let me concentrate on current news. I'd like to talk about three topics: What we do in space launch, why we do it, how we do it?


First, what we do. You have to remember that one of the AF's core competencies is space. Because of that, we currently take care of the majority of the tasks you would have to include in your bid to take over our work at the launch sites. We are DoD's executive agent for the space business, and we put our money where our mouth is. In an era of scarce resources, the AF annually devotes a significant portion of its funding toward preserving America's access to space.

I already mentioned our $2 billion investment in EELV. We're not just building a military booster, we're building an American booster. We're doing our part to reduce the costly access to space. Just as industry currently benefits from past AF investments in the Atlas and Delta programs, industry will also benefit from the EELV program. After the AF develops the EELV, affordable boosters will be available to the commercial market at marginal cost. This represents a $2 billion cost avoidance for industry. If the AF had not stepped up, could industry afford this?

I've recently traveled to the French and Japanese launch complexes. Japan, France and other foreign countries entering the launch business have found access to space requires a huge commitment in infrastructure. Their governments have stepped up to develop this infrastructure. As you can see, the Air Force has already made this commitment for our country in both people and dollars. If we weren't here, would commercial industry step up? Could they afford to?

And perhaps more important to you, through our boosters and infrastructure, we provide the basis for the current and future commercial launch industry.

Which brings me to my second point, why we do it. There are two fundamental motivations for our deep commitment to space launch. One is assured access to space. The second is national security.

Assured access to space: Contrary to popular belief, assured access to space is not an American birthright. In fact it wasn't very long ago we lost it for a while.

Most of you in this room were associated with the space business in the late '70s, early '80s. This is the historical period Pete Aldridge [former Air Force secretary] refers to as the era of a tragic policy decision.

The tragedy, of course, was the policy direction to put all our launch eggs in one basket in order to justify the cost of the shuttle program. The federal government was on its way out of the expendable launch business, relying almost exclusively on the shuttle. And you'll probably also recall the numbing feeling 10 years ago following the Challenger accident and the second Titan failure. America stood with no access to space -- not a good feeling.

Unfortunately, it was this same era which saw the American share of commercial space launch drop from almost 100 percent to around 30 percent -- also not a good feeling, and you guys have felt this drop in dollars, personnel losses and prestige. I'm sure that situation a decade ago shaped our current national space transportation strategy - with NASA responsible for the shuttle and reusable launch vehicles, and the Air Force pursuing expendables. History has shown this is a smart path to assured access to space.

And if you remember our perilous situation back in April 1986, you must also recall that the idea of totally commercial space launch is not new. Remember the Complimentary Expendable Launch Vehicle Program? We were going to buy commercial boosters from industry. We called for contractors to pay for the development costs of this commercial booster.

However, no one was sold on this approach, particularly industry! We weren't exactly trampled by commercial launch providers fighting to develop new boosters and take over the soon-to-be-abandoned ELV [expendable launch vehicle] infrastructure at our two launch bases. In fact, I'm sure the Air Force folks manning the commercial launch provider office felt a lot like the Maytag repairman. The first commercial launch did occur in 1989, but only after the AF re-entered the ELV business in afterburner, after we had awarded significant Atlas and Delta contracts and after commercial launch providers could use the AF business base to build and launch at marginal cost.

National Security: But while assured access to space has a national flavor to it, our second reason why we launch has a military flavor -- national security. Space launch is one of the missions assigned by President Clinton to Gen. Joe Ashy in his capacity as CinCSpace. And the president, through national policy, designated the DoD as the executive agent for expendable launch vehicles. And this executive agency is delegated to the AF.

So the AF is assigned a vital, national defense mission of assured access to space for our satellites, which are fundamental to national security. This is not only a military mission, but a warfighting mission. And for this reason alone, we must own the means to execute it.

Just consider the air analogy. Air superiority is also an AF core competence and a warfighting mission. We own the planes, airfields and maintenance personnel to accomplish this mission. No one has ever questioned ownership in that department. Space launch is an AF core competence, a warfighting mission, and we will continue to own the boosters, satellites, launch bases and personnel to accomplish this warfighting mission.

Sure, we'll contract out many launch base activities. The fact of the matter is we already do! Just as we've privatized most of the base operations at our Air Education and Training Command bases, we also contract out the running of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. In fact, we currently contract out well over $100 million per year at the cape. And there's no doubt in my mind commercial companies will launch commercial satellites out of spaceports in California and Florida. But will we give up ownership of the AF's presidentially directed warfighting mission? I don't think so.

So now that we've covered the what and why, let me sum up how we do it in one word -- cooperation. We cooperate with NASA, the NRO and industry in virtually every aspect of space launch. This cooperation is not limited to space launch, but is present in virtually every aspect of the Air Force's space effort.

For example, we've fostered an unprecedented degree of cooperation with NASA. Dan Goldin [NASA administrator] and I recently identified seven specific areas of mutual cooperation from sharing TT&C resources to consolidating base support services at some of the places we share real estate.

And the Air Force is leaning forward to help the commercial space launch industry off the ground. We've awarded space launch grants and favorable lease arrangements on both coasts and offer range services to these new launch service providers at marginal cost. We are extremely excited at the prospects of a rapidly growing commercial space business. An expanding space business will surely translate into future cost savings for the Air Force.

The Air Force has deep historical roots in the space business. We've been the lead service since the 1950s. We have tremendous expertise in the men and women in the Air Force who work our space acquisition and operations. Thirty-thousand-strong, these Air Force personnel account for over 90 percent of the total DoD space work force.

And the Air Force invests $5 billion per year on space programs, over 80 percent of all DoD dollars spent on space. I don't feel like I'm out on a limb when I say if it wasn't for the AF, there may not be American commercial launch providers launching American boosters from American soil.

So let me sum this up. Space, and particularly space launch, is a shining example of cooperation between the Air Force, the NRO, NASA and industry. This cooperation has developed not only a military core competence for the Air Force, but a national competitive advantage for the nation.

National security dictates that the Air Force will be stewards of our nation's access to space. Air Force personnel and financial investments in space launch dictate we will be good stewards of this capability.

I'm sure there will always be those who want focus on old news. I, for one, can't imagine removing blue suiters from our launch bases. Will there be an increase in the number of commercial operators on our launch bases? I sure hope so, because that would mean the commercial space business was really taking off.

But it's clear to me the commercial space business needs the Air Force operating our launch sites. It is the synergism of the military and commercial efforts that will allow America to retain a competitive advantage in space. So I guess my advice to those on the other side of the public vs. private debate is, be careful what you ask for!

The future defense of this nation depends on space -- the future economic prosperity of this nation depends on space. It certainly doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the common denominator is low-cost access to space. However, it's obvious to this rocket scientist that the way ahead involves every one in this room working together! ...


Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at