Air Force Begins Work on Reusable Rockets

Aviation Week reports that just as NASA is beginning to look into using the Atlas V and Delta IV EELVs for crew transport, the U.S. Air Force is finalizing plans to replace them with reusable rocket technology by 2025:

With the Air Force facing escalating costs on the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, the new system offers the promise of cutting launch costs more than 50% by combining a reusable first stage with expendable upper stages. The booster would take off vertically and return to a runway landing at the launch site.

The next-generation Reusable Booster System (RBS) architecture is defined in a spacelift development plan now in the final stages of coordination within the Air Force.

“The plan will go up to Space Command within the next month or two,” says Ken Hampsten, head of spacelift for the Space and Missile Systems Center’s developmental planning division. “There is a very good business case for replacing the EELV,” he says.

The plan calls for replacing the Atlas V and Delta IV with two versions of the RBS: a single reusable first stage and expendable cryogenic upper stage for medium-lift missions; and two reusable boosters, cryogenic core stage and upper stage for heavy-lift and growth missions. Initial operational capability is set for 2025, with the EELVs being phased out in 2030 once the Air Force is comfortable relying on the RBS, he says.

It will be interesting to see how this will mesh with NASA’s other major initiative, which is to research new technologies for the development of a heavy-lift vehicle. The Obama Administration has proposed making a decision on the HTV by 2015.

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