Can the Air Force Reach a 24-Hour Launch Window?
Launching rockets with 24-hour notice is one of the U.S. Air Force’s latest goals. In a “sources sought” notice titled Rapid Space Launch Initiative , the service is reaching out to American space launch companies to identify technical risks and challenges and develop demonstrations that would result in a launch within 24 hours of a “call up,” versus weeks or months. The notice comes ahead of a Rapid Space Launch Initiative industry day dedicated to exploring solicited “ultra-rapid” launch capabilities.
The initiative is born out of the Air Force’s desire to respond to unforeseen global events and the increasingly contested nature of space. The rapid launch demonstration focuses on placing a 220-kilogram payload sized for a single Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle* (EELV) Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) into low-earth orbit (LEO); however, the service is also interested in solutions that can scale to varying orbits and payloads of national security interest.
While a 24-hour launch may seem like an incredible feat (and it still would be), heads of four major commercial space launch companies – all of which are competing for National Security Space Launch (formerly Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) contracts – suggested that current capabilities are not far off from meeting the challenge during the Satellite 2019 conference held in Washington D.C. last month.
The small-scale demonstrations will require the participating launch vehicles to be ready for flight and prepositioned at the intended launch location and deliver its payload to the intended orbit successfully with Air Force verification of operability after deployment.
The demonstration is limited, however. While national security launch responses might supersede standard range timelines, for the sake of maintaining current launch operations, the demonstrations will be planned according to normal launch timelines. Also, launch site and vehicle survivability – or the ability to withstand an attack – may be a future consideration for operational 24-hour launch capabilities, but there is no current requirement at this point.
Reaching this goal may require the removal of technical, procedural, and/or regulatory barriers and officials involved with the initiative are also willing to consider alternative operations in place of a 24-launch. Additionally, if the original goal is deemed infeasible or impractical by the scale of those barriers or due to cost or manpower, the government is willing to investigate longer response windows.
William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.