Gen. William L. Shelton, retiring Air Force space chief, talks RD-180, deterrence and sequestration
by Ben Iannotta, Aerospace America editor-in-chief
Congratulations on your retirement. That’s quite a career.
Do you know what you’ll be doing?
Probably just kicking back for the first few months here, and wait till after the first of the year to see what develops. But probably not full-time work. Probably consulting work and that sort of thing.
Are you going to stay in the Colorado Springs area?
One thing, looking back over your bio, that I thought was interesting was your time as a space shuttle flight controller. I hadn’t really thought about that. That must have been kind of emotional when the space shuttle retired.
It was difficult to watch that program go away. I was there for the first 18 shuttle missions. I was part of mission control, and so got to know the crewmembers. Had a really good team of folks around me as flight controllers. It was a learning experience for a lot of us as young folks. To see that program retire is really kind of hard to watch.
How did having a couple of astronautics degrees help you in that role?
Well, it’s interesting. I was in graduate school looking for a follow-on assignment coming out of graduate school, and they said, would you like to go down to Houston and work on the shuttle program. I almost dropped the phone, like there was any other answer to that question. And so I was for all intents and purposes on loan to NASA working as a NASA employee as much as anything, and using the education out of graduate school directly on guidance, navigation and control issues with the shuttle. That was kind of my specialty – even though it was an astro degree, it was guidance, navigation and control. So being a GNC on console for the shuttle was absolutely using that graduate degree directly.
Do you think there will be the same kind of excitement with the space launch system and Orion? I guess with the shuttle at that point there were visions of launching national security satellites on it for years to come, and I know that didn’t end up coming about.
You know, I think that’s one thing that we do kind of need right now is kind of the grand challenge. What is the grand challenge that will excite young people in particular? That will encourage people to go after science, technology, engineering and math kinds of degrees. So I hope we can find that grand challenge over the next few years.
That was pleasant, but there’s no easy segue into the next question – sequestration. What was it like to lead Space Command through sequestration?
It was a very difficult time. We were directed, really, not to plan for sequestration, so we hadn’t. And then when we realized that it would be implemented, that there wasn’t going to be a legislative save, we had six months to meet the FY13 sequestration targets. So it was quite a scramble that far into the fiscal year to determine what we could cut to meet our targets. And just very difficult to get through ’13. We’ve had a little bit of relief in ’14. We think ’15’s going to be about the same kind of challenge. But it is a difficult time when a lot of your fungible money, if you will, is tied up in contracts.
What won’t you be able to do in ’16 and afterwards if, you know, sequestration happens again and there isn’t congressional relief of some sort?
I wish I had a good answer for you, Ben, but I don’t. I think, we are – anything that was what you might call low-hanging fruit, anything that could be an easy reduction, has been taken. There is nothing left but hardcore capability. So you would be literally choosing among your children.
I’m trying to put myself in your shoes. Do you feel robbed of a chance to make a really big change at Space Command and solve even more problems – because, you know, you were the sequestration commander?
I think everybody wishes they had more money to spend during their tenure, but in terms of leadership challenges, it’s hard to find one that’s more compelling than that one. So leading the command through that time, certainly challenging, and you know, everybody gets their challenges at their particular time, and that was mine.
I wanted to talk about space situational awareness a bit. Why did the Air Force decide to go public about the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness program satellites?
I think if you look at what that program is going to do, I think it was a desire for transparency. It was a desire to indicate that we, in fact, were watching what was going on in geosynchronous orbit – watching very closely. And hopefully it will have deterrent and dissuasion impact.
Given that China, for example, is a rising space power and has demonstrated that it can reach geosynchronous orbit, I think, with an ASAT, correct?
They certainly have the rockets to do that. They certainly have demonstrated in low Earth orbit their capability to impact one of their own defunct satellites, so it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think that they could get to geosynchronous orbit with the same kind of capability.
So, China would be one country that you’d think about deterring. Are there others?
Certainly. There are existing powers, there are rising powers. So this isn’t aimed at just one nation. This is a recognition that we have a great dependence on space in the United States, and we want potential adversaries to be aware of our space capabilities as well.
How do you guys say G-S-S-A-P – do you say gee-sap?
How will the GSSAP satellites compare to the Space Based Surveillance System satellite?
Very different. Think about [an SBSS] satellite that’s orbiting in about a 100-minute orbit and coming around and really looking at points of light – not resolving images, but looking at points of light, and keeping track of the traffic in geosynchronous orbit, against the background of the stars. So, things that are stationary are stars. Things that are moving, those are objects actually flying in geosynchronous orbit. So that is a timely way to keep track of that traffic.
What GSSAP does is fly in the vicinity of geo – above and below – with electro-optical capability, and can resolve images. Can see very fine detail and give you a much better idea of what an object is. Not that it’s there, but what that object is. So what we call characterize the object.
Does the National Reconnaissance Office have a role in GSSAP?
NRO’s obviously very interested in what our data will provide.
Is the GSSAP launch – first launch – still on for July 23rd?
It sure is.
That’s got two satellites?
It’s got two satellites.
What are the orbits of those satellites?
Like I said, they’ll fly in the vicinity of geosynchronous orbit and collect images from there.
But they won’t be geosynchronous, they’ll be maneuvering?
Well, they have, obviously, maneuvering capability, but they will be basically drifting. If you go just below or just above the geosynchronous orbit you will drift in relation to the geosynchronous orbit, and that allows you to basically float by objects in geosynchronous orbit and take images.
On the Space Fence, what made the difference in selecting Lockheed Martin over Raytheon?
I haven’t seen the formal out brief on that. I know that at least from what I have been told there were some technical superiorities there, but I would have to wait until I got more on the out brief on that.
You’re not involved in source selection?
That’s done at Space and Missile Systems Center. I certainly generate the requirements and budget for the resources.
I had kind of a fundamental question about the Joint Space Operations Center, or JSpOC. It looks like you’re gathering readings from all sorts of sensors, and anticipating conjunctions or collisions. And then you’ve also got the command and control of U.S. satellites there, so you’ve kind of merged intelligence and operations. Am I understanding that correctly?
That’s a very good description of what we’re doing. You have sensors all over the world that collect in the various orbital regimes. You put all that data together and you do what we call orbit estimation. Because it’s a probabilistic thing. It’s not, you know, where you can take a tape measure out and measure it. This is sensors that have various inaccuracies. So you estimate the orbit by putting these observations together, and doing basically a curve fit to those various data points. And then based on those orbital estimations, the orbits that we develop out of that process, then we estimate conjunctions between those various objects. That’s part of it. We want to understand when something’s maneuvered. That’s another part of it. We want to provide command and control capability. That’s another part of it. That’s the advantage of the JSpOC and the advantage of the JSpOC Mission System, the new program that will give us a high-performance computing environment to do even more than we can do today.
On satellite communications, given that protected communications is where the money is – this is just the theory of the case – some people are trying to claim their thing does protected comms. Do you think there needs to be some kind of standard for that, or do you think it’s pretty well understood?
You know, I think it’s pretty well understood. The way we think about it, it is communications that need to get through – get through a jammed environment and also get through a nuclear scintillation environment. So that’s what we consider protected comms. And there are strategic aspects to that and there are tactical aspects to that. The tactical aspects are probably not going to be worrying much about tactical communications in a nuclear exchange environment, but if you’ve got a jamming environment, that’s where you want to be able to get the comms through to deployed forces. The strategic sense – yes, the president needs to be able to communicate with deployed forces no matter what the conditions are. And that’s why we have Advanced EHF [Extremely High Frequency] and Milstar [satellites].
I read this white paper on resiliency and disaggregation. Did you have a hand in that?
Are you the author?
A group of folks here.
How does disaggregation feature into the future of protected satcom?
Think about a constellation of four satellites – four big, Advanced EHF satellites. That being the total constellation. That makes each one of those a very attractive target for potential adversaries, because that’s obviously how the president’s going to communicate in times of crisis. So, if we can become what I would call passively more survivable, so it at least complicates the adversary’s targeting decision calculus, I think we are miles ahead of where we are today. So if you could take the strategic payload and the tactical payload and separate those, and there’s a variety of things that you can think about doing with those – either free flyers for each of those or hosting those payloads on other platforms. Any number of things. That’s what we consider disaggregation. That’s what we consider more resilient than what we have today. There’s lots of theories out there about this, and we’re in the midst of the studies right now to determine the best way ahead. But we need to start thinking about becoming much more survivable than we are today.
That’s the analysis of alternatives underway. Is that what you’re referring to?
Does that have a title?
We’ll have to get you the title. It’s more complicated than it needs to be.
It’s the journalist’s bane. We get to simplify it.
Try to explain it anyway.
Do you know when that’s supposed to be completed?
Should be this winter.
Okay, so winter – does that mean January?
I think in the December-January timeframe. Somewhere in there, but that’s all subject to the progress of the AOA.
I tuned in to the Elon Musk lawsuit. The thing I wondered about is, okay, if SpaceX has to meet this certification process [to launch military satellites], if you put a new engine on the Atlas 5, does it have to go through the equivalent or same process then?
I don’t think we’ve made it that far down the path on that. Right now, the situation is fairly status quo, to tell you the truth. We really have not seen anything out of the Russian industry to indicate that we would have trouble with future RD-180s. Some of what you hear is domestically developed constraints, but in terms of the arrangement between [United Launch Alliance] and their Russian counterparts, that seems to be just fine. At the same time, we’re looking at hedging strategies. Do we need to indigenously produce a new engine ourselves here in the United States, and if we did, what would that new engine look like? What would the acquisition strategy look like? Would it be a public private partnership? Would it be ULA on their own developing a new engine? And until we get another certified partner in the launch business to comply with national space transportation policy, we have to have two ways of launching national security payloads. So we need the Atlas line and the Delta line, until we get somebody else certified. And even when we get somebody else certified, they may not be able to cover the full suite of missions that we have manifested. So it’s going to continue to be a struggle for us in the launch business.
So then, is the lesson, ‘Hey, let’s be ready in case we need to put an alternative to the RD-180 on the Atlas 5’? Or is the lesson, ‘Look, we’ve been meaning to do this for 20 years. This is a wakeup call, even if it is just bluster. Let’s get it done.’
If you were to ask me my personal opinion, I would lean toward the latter. I would think that this is a bit of a wakeup call for us, and what – We had gone with a stockpile strategy rather than co-production of the RD-180 here in the United States, and I think we’re seeing that that stockpile strategy may not be adequate for the future. So what are we going to do in the wake of this disturbance in the force, if you will?
Maybe put your astronautics engineering degree hat on for a second. What would be challenging about developing a new engine?
Actually, depending on what kind of engine you went to – If you went with a LOX [liquid oxygen]-hydrogen engine, I think most of the technologies there are pretty mature. If you went with a hydrocarbon engine, however, there are some materials science things that we would need [to] prove. There are some thrust chamber stability issues that we would need to prove. There’s a little bit more development – some would consider it significantly more development – to go on a hydrocarbon engine than a LOX-hydrogen engine.
It seems like people don’t like the co-development idea, meaning you would figure out how to replicate what the Russians have done on the RD-180. Why is that?
A couple of things: One is, you really – the primary objective is to not rely on foreign expertise. That we in fact have U.S. expertise to apply to the problem. You don’t really get away from that, because you would still have dependence on Russian subject matter expertise. The second thing is, you find out that once you kind of do the math it’s going to take you almost as long and almost as much money to co-produce the RD-180 as opposed to developing from scratch the engine you would like to build.
I wanted to jump back to something I asked you about on the JSpOC.
Why do you need high performance computing? Might you have to use quantum computing?
Well, maybe someday. Right now we think a high performance computing environment is going to be adequate. And you’re talking about a tremendous volume of data. You bring all that data in and process it to compute these orbits. And then there are applications that go from – that is, if you want to think about it as a database. All those orbits are just the database. And then what do you do with all those? With that database that has those orbits in it? Well, you’d like to understand, if somebody’s going to launch an ASAT at you, what is really at risk. Again, that’s take all the orbits you’ve got in the database and figure out what objects might be at risk. If you want to do hypothesis testing, go forward in time, go backwards in time, you can do that with a high performance computing environment. There are several applications, once you’ve got that foundation in place, you can drop in applications, and if you’re not satisfied with that you can pull it out and put another application in to replace it. You can think about problems in different ways. You can display data. The unfortunate thing for an operator [who] is looking at space and objects flying in space [is that] it is not natural in terms of the way we think about things. In the atmosphere, if you want to go at something in the atmosphere, you point at it and thrust and you’re there. That’s not the way it works in space. Sometimes you thrust a different direction to get to the object you’re trying to get to in space. So, you almost have to give operators 3D visual kinds of assistance to help them operate in space, and that’s what this new system will do.
It’s not just about, hey, there are going to be more objects and more debris in space, we need to grow with it through high performance. It’s about helping you understand what’s out there now better.
Understand what’s out there now and you operate better in the environment you’re given here.
Well I’m not going to pile on. I could talk to you for hours.
Thanks for the time Ben.
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