On the eve of the D-Day celebrations, SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule returned from the International Space Station (ISS), completing the private launcher’s 17th resupply mission to the manned orbital research facility. Its June 4 “splash down” completed the Commercial Resupply Services mission 17 (CRS-17) — that delivered 5,500 pounds of supplies for the astronauts and materials for ongoing experiments and research.
Dragon docked at the ISS for about a month, while the crew unloaded its cargo, and then began its de-orbit burn. SpaceX has provided an informative 30-minute recap of the CRS-17 mission, complete with an infrared capture of the return of the Falcon’s first-stage booster for a perfect landing on the drone landing ship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Pacific Ocean.
This reuse of launchers for space operations was the objective of an important effort in President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), better known for its advocacy for space-based defenses against ballistic missiles and still the most cost-effective, but as yet unrealized, defense against ballistic missile attack for Americans at home and our overseas troops, friends and allies.
Lest you doubt that impressive SDI efforts preceded the impressive SpaceX achievements, consider the 1993-94 demonstration of SDI’s Delta Clipper-X, or DC-X, and later dubbed the Clipper Graham, after USA Lt. General Danny Graham who persuaded Vice President Dan Quayle and my predecessor SDI Director USAF Lt. General George Monahan to initiate the effort.
I continued their advocacy and persuaded the Pentagon powers that be that a reusable launch capability would provide a cost-effective way to launch targets for our efforts to test our ballistic missile defense systems. While we did not have time to complete the effort, it was well on its way to completing its missions, as CNN later reported around the world.
Tests, conducted on the White Sands Test Range by a small very competent technical team, demonstrated that the DC-X could launch, turn horizontal, right itself and land successfully. After a number of successful tests, it tipped over and was destroyed by human error, not mission essential hardware. However, it earned General Danny Graham NASA’s top award for his successful advocacy of this innovative reusable launch approach.
Regrettably, further NASA development of the concept, with its extensive bureaucratic management, ran amok. And that reusable approach lay dormant until Elon Musk picked up the baton and succeeded masterfully. Notably, his “Grasshopper” vehicle repeated the DC-X feat at higher altitudes in 2012-13; and he told Jess Sponable, the DC-X Program Manager, he was “just continuing the great work of the DC-X project!”
And now, SpaceX regularly lands its first stage on an off-shore barge for reuse, and it is employing this same technology to support our orbiting manned satellites — and will in returning us to the Moon.
We see what the private sector can do when it takes a good idea and runs with the ball. Moreover, SpaceX — and others exploiting current technology — are demonstrating the same private sector expertise that can quite affordably repeat the lessons-learned 30 years ago when SDI technologists understood that private sector technology could have led to cost-effective space-based defenses.
Indeed, SpaceX has plans to make money by deploying up to 12,000 small satellites to compete with current broadband communication systems, built the traditional way. This orbital configuration is similar to that SDI planned for an order-of-magnitude fewer space-based interceptors.
More for another day to emphasize again that we need a Space Force, and that a worthy goal for the reinstated U.S. Space Command is to revive SDI technology and related concepts, and to prove again that the private sector can provide truly cost-effective space based defenses to protect America and our overseas troops, friends, and allies.
Are you listening, Elon Musk? You don’t have to wait for government initiatives to demonstrate for all to see the plausibility of this benefit for the American people.
Ambassador Henry F. (Hank) Cooper, Chairman of High Frontier and an acknowledged expert on strategic and space national security issues, was President Ronald Reagan's Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union and Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Director during the George H.W. Bush administration. Previously, he served as the Assistant Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Deputy Assistant USAF Secretary and Science Advisor to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory. In the private sector he was Chairman of Applied Research Associates, a high technology company; member of the technical staff of Jaycor, R&D Associates and Bell Telephone Laboratories; a Senior Associate of the National Institute for Public Policy; and Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He received B.S. and M.S. degrees from Clemson and a PhD from New York University, all in Mechanical Engineering. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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