Space Cowboys
by Vernon J. Brechin and Gar Smith

An intrepid band of former NASA employees has embarked on an ambitious private-sector plan to launch commercial satellites to orbit around the Earth using reusable rockets. The Kistler Aerospace Corporation's unique approach to the commercial space-race involves a fleet of reusable two-stage rockets. "We are building a 'truck' for delivering payloads to orbit," explains CEO George Mueller. "Each stage is fully recoverable and will return and land at the Kistler launch site" by deploying parachutes and airbags.

Unlike most spaceports, this launch pad would not be located on a coast, where rockets could be launched over open oceans. The Kistler facility would be built in the heart of the American Southwest--on 689 acres of desert, 94 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. By reusing each of its five rockets up to 100 times each, Kistler plans to blast off as many as 52 times a year. At $17 million per launch, Kistler hopes to undercut "government-supported competition from Russia, Ukraine and China." (This assumes, of course, no losses due to accidents or breakdowns.)

Kistler's two "Operational Launch Corridors" would send missiles flying over eight states (Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, California) and at least 98 major US cities and native reservations. Kistler`s northern launch path would send rockets zooming over Boise, Spokane, and British Columbia.

The northeastern path would hurl missiles over Billings, Salt Lake City, Rapid City, Jackson, Yellowstone National Park and at least five Canadian provinces. The launch corridors also cover Western Shoshone and Paiute lands in Nevada, Idaho and Utah.

Returning rockets would plunge back to Earth over the California coast, passing over Santa Barbara, Ventura, Oxnard, Bakersfield and Death Valley. None of this information is readily apparent in the project's Draft Environmental Assessment (DEA) since the launch and recovery maps contain no city names.

And what enterprise is so critical that it must expose US cities to potential rocket mishaps? "The information superhighway is currently under construction by today's largest and most sophisticated high-technology multinational corporations," a Kistler press release explains. "One of the major hardware components of this information superhighway is a multitude of new earth-orbiting satellites."

The Teal Group, a market research firm covering the commercial space industry, predicts that more than 1,400 payloads will be launched into low-earth orbit between 1999-2008. These satellites will be whizzing a mere 110-540 miles (200 to 1,000 km) above the Earth with payloads ranging in size from small 220-pound (100 kg) systems to huge 5,500-pound (2,500 kg) Teledesic satellites.

These projectiles would be arranged in "constellations" of 200 or more satellites. Four major telecom satellite systems currently are in the works but only two are expected to survive financially.

Iridium, one of the first space-com ventures, launched 66 telecommunications satellites into low-Earth orbit before eventually defaulting on $1.5 billion in loans. The company was hit by a dozen class-action lawsuits and filed for bankruptcy on August 13, 1999. Now the question is: Who is responsible for safely "de-orbiting" Iridium's abandoned satellites?

What makes America's first private inland spaceport possible is that it would be built inside the Nevada Test Site, the Department of Energy's secretive atomic weapons testing range.

Approval of the project would set a precedent that could unleash an era of commercial satellite launches over inhabited inland portions of the US. (Another inland spaceport has been proposed near New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range. The Montana Space Development Agency hopes to launch reusable rockets from the Malstrom Airforce Base near Great Falls and the state of Utah has proposed launching commercial space rockets from the Wah Wah Valley, 30 miles southwest of Milford. Another proposed spaceport at the Kenedy Ranch, south of Corpus Christi, Texas, would send commercial rockets blasting over a national seashore inhabited by white pelicans and endangered sea turtles.)

The proposed launch site would be at an elevation of 5,800 feet on the southern slopes of Pahute Mesa. Because DOE officials feared that a catastrophic launch failure might interfere with attempts to operate a high-level nuclear waste dump at nearby Yucca Mountain, Kistler had to accept a rather remote site known as "Area 18."

On October 28, 1998, President Clinton signed the Commercial Space Act (PL 105-303) to "promote economic growth... through use of the space environment." The new space law put Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in charge of licensing "commercial re-entry vehicles." A Kistler press release explained that this special-interest legislation was needed "to lay the regulatory foundation for Kistler Aerospace to launch its K-l vehicle from the Nevada Test Site" (NTS). In October 1998, Kistler signed a use-agreement with the Nevada Test Site Development Corporation (NTSDC), a public-private nonprofit company established by Congress to find companies interested in renting unused portions of the test site.

Kistler Aerospace, with corporate offices in Kirkland, Washington and executive offices in Los Angeles, plans to operate two spaceports--one Nevada and another in Australia's Woomera Prohibited Area. As CEO Mueller explained to a Senate Subcommittee last October, "two launch sites will permit Kistler to serve the broadest possible market and to hedge against technical, commercial, regulatory and other constraints that might slow or restrict Kistler's operations." (In other words, if US regulators start to give Kistler a hard time, it can launch its rockets in Australia.)

Mueller is the former head of NASA's Apollo space program and one of several ex-NASA officials at the company. In addition to a number of "distinguished design engineers" from the Saturn, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, the Kistler team also boasts former Rockwell International VP Dale Myers and former US Congressman Tony Coelho.

Kistler Chairman Robert Wang promises that "our vehicles will be operated in repeated flights with airfreight efficiency:" But fling reusable rockets like "fleets of airplanes" will mean added wear and tear--and increased chances of failure or breakdown. Kistler plans to keep its costs low by "minimizing the number of disconnections and reconnections of electronic, hydraulic, and fuel lines between flights... If unbroken connections worked properly in the last flight," Kistler reasons, "they are more likely to do so in the next." Relying on "automated testing" to check for broken connections will provide a means of "further reducing operations costs, and ensuring that a poor connection is not overlooked clue to human error."

Kistler proudly insists that it "will not accept government funds. All financing for our project will come from private resources." But Kistler already has accepted a potential major federal subsidy from US taxpayers--the offer of a secure spaceport inside the Nevada Test Site.

In March 1998, Australia's Environment Minister granted Kistler permission to build a spaceport in the Woomera Prohibited Area, the Australian government's secret missile-testing site in the South Australia desert. The multibillion spaceport was to have been completed in time for the first test flights in late 1998, with the first commercial launch in 1999. These plans misfired when Kistler ran out of capital and was forced to delay plans for the first sub-orbital launch for more than a year.

In May 1998, Taiwan's China Development Bank (the country's largest investment and venture capital company) came to the rescue with an $8 million investment. The Taiwan bank also lined up another $50 million in joint investments from a group of seven other area banks. But there was a price to pay. As the Yangcheng Evening News reported, "once the reusable technology is mature," Kistler had to agree that it would be "transferred to a joint venture company in Taiwan."

Kistler foresees the first K-l lifting off from the Nevada Test Site sometime in 2001 or 2002.

Kistler's two-stage K-l rocket stands 121 feet (39.9m) tall, measures 22 feet (6.7m) in diameter and weighs 841,000 pounds (382,300 kg). Russian-built NK-33 and NK-43 rocket engines burning liquid-oxygen (LOx) and kerosene will power the K-l. Nearly half of the K-1's initial ascent would occur over the NTS and the Nellis Air Force Range. Kistler maintains that the K-l's "steep flight ascent profile further minimizes risk to the public."

Approximately 132 seconds after lift-off, engines on the first-stage Launch Assist Platform (LAP) will shut down. Five seconds later and 27 miles above Nevada, the LAP will separate from the rest of the rocket, restart its engine, and "fly back [to the launch site], deploy a drogue parachute, and then deploy larger parachutes and airbags to land at the recovery area approximately 620 seconds after ignition."

The term "fly" is misleading. After separation, the LAP must perform an intricate high-altitude somersault. If this maneuver is successful, the LAP then essentially falls back to Earth on a ballistic trajectory for approximately 50 miles before deploying its parachutes.

During the parachute decent, unpredictable winds could cause the LAP to miss its target. The Draft Environmental Assessment says nothing about upper-level winds impairing landing accuracy but it does mention "atmospheric conditions" that could carry debris from an in-flight explosion well outside the flight corridor.

Meanwhile, if all goes according to plan, the rocket's upper-stage Orbital Vehicle (OV) will continue to hurtle skyward, firing its main engine for 200 seconds to gain altitude before coasting to the "customer-prescribed orbit."

Twenty-four hours later, after 14 trips around the Earth, the OV would "execute a de-orbit maneuver, re-enter the atmosphere, and land" at the same 556-acre (169 hectare) landing-and-recovery area as the LAP, about seven miles (11 km) west of the Kistler's launch pad and payload processing facility.

The returning OV would streak toward Nevada along one of two re-entry corridors on either side of Los Angeles. The OV would cross the California-Nevada border approximately 34 nautical miles (63 km) from the landing site at a height of 112,400 feet (34.3 km).

The returning rockets would be guided by "an autonomously controlled system that does not require extensive tracking and communications networks." Kistler claims that this robotic re-entry system relies on "proven technology and components, and will be fully redundant. The vehicle will be wholly autonomous, and rely on redundant flight computers and guidance and navigation strings." But the fact is, this unprecedented "fly-back technology" is far from proven. Kistler itself acknowledges that the guidance software still needs to "be validated extensively prior to flight." Even the NTS officials sound skeptical. According to the environmental assessment, NTS authorities have only agreed to "consider accepting the autonomously controlled system pending FAA licensing."

The environmental assessment lists a number of things that could go wrong. The first-stage engine or guidance system could fail during boost phase. The LAP could fail to execute its complicated fly-back maneuver. The second-stage could fail to separate from the LAP booster or the OV's engine could fail to ignite.

Meuller assured Senate inquisitors that, "When fully loaded, the K-1 will carry less kerosene than a fully loaded 747 aircraft." The statement clearly was crafted to minimize the risks. According to Kistler documents, the K-l carries 350,000 pounds (50,724 gallons) of kerosene-based RP-1 fuel. A fully loaded 747 carries 372,496 pounds of kerosene. If a mishap caused the 175 tons of explosive jet aboard a fuel fully-loaded K-l to mix with the 906 pounds of frozen liquid oxygen also carried aboard each K-l, the resulting blast would far exceed the explosion of a 747.

Missiles launched over oceans feature a self-destruct mechanism, in the event a rocket begins to veer off course. Since the K-l is launched over land, no self-destruct system was included in the design. Instead, Kistler promised a Flight Safety System that "consists of various functions that are activated in the event the vehicle strays from its preplanned trajectory." These "various functions" are not detailed.

"In the event that the LAP experiences an engine or guidance system failure during boost phase," the draft assessment states, "the vehicle is equipped to recognize the deviation from the planned flight path. The vehicle will then shut down the remaining engines and impact in open terrain." There is no explanation why an out-of-control missile stage would be expected to impact in "open" rather than in populated terrain. The statement appears have been driven by wishful thinking on the part of Kistler's design engineers.

"If the LAP fails to re-ignite for flyback," the asessment states, "it will continue downrange approximately 236 km [147 miles] on a ballistic trajectory." This could bring a falling rocket down on Rachel or Eureka, Nevada. The draft assessment notes that the "Impact Points for LAP Failure to Re-ignite" would vary "with mission inclination" but the assessment does not elaborate on the range of the variation. There is a reference to "Instantaneous Impact Points (IIP)" but no explanation about what these represent. The omission may have been intentional. Until the public is told what these "impact points" represent, the environmental assessment process should be terminated and replaced by the environmental impact process.

In the event that the first-stage fails to separate from the orbital-stage, the second-stage rocket engines would still ignite. They would trigger an explosion that would blast the still-attached LAP to pieces. Kistler notes that the debris would fall "in an elliptical area" 130 miles (236 km) downrange.

In the event that the second-stage engine is damaged or its guidance disabled, the environmental assessment claims that "the OV will… initiate a fuel-release that lightens the vehicle and enables it attempt a controlled, intact landing using its parachutes and airbags." If the programmed fuel release fails, residual fuel could cause a ground-level explosion or toxic spill.

If the OV fires for only a few seconds or explodes, the debris could fall well beyond the established fallout-zone. If the OV engine fails or shuts down before the 145-second mark, the dead missile could fall to Earth thousands of miles from the launch site A boost-failure before the programmed engine shutdown could result in an out-of-control reentry at any point along the partial orbit track.

Kistler's strategy for emergency landings is to "avoid populated areas rather than designate emergency landing sites." Unfortunately, nothing is said about how this can be achieved. It is doubtful that on-board guidance computers will be able to determine which direction the missile body falls, or direct a drifting parachuted missile to a particular patch of land.

Kistler's rockets would exit the troposphere and enter the stratosphere about seven miles (12 km) from the launch site. According to a report in the April 21 Federal Register, Kistler's rockets would emit nearly half the amount of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrochloric acid, and water vapor as a Titan IIIE/Centaur rocket--a giant missile used to launch heavy satellites into orbit.

Each Kistler rocket launch "would produce more CO2 than the Titan IIIE/Centaur in the upper atmosphere, 71 percent more in the stratosphere and 109 percent more in the mesosphere and thermosphere"--totaling almost 4,455 tons. Still, the environmental assessment concluded that this pollution was "not expected to significantly impact the upper atmosphere."

Each Kistler launch would pour 77,435 pounds (35,124 kg) of CO2 into the lower atmosphere--4.1 million pounds (1,861,572 kg) a year. The environmental assessment dismissed this pollution as "infinitely small compared to the 150 billion tons of CO2 emissions from other industrial sources in the US." Each K-l launch will produce 33 percent more H2O than the Titan IIIE/Centaur. In the upper atmosphere, the Register notes, "H2O and CO2 may be considered potential pollutants" that can have a "possible influence on the Earth's heat balance."

On October 1999, Kistler CEO Mueller appeared before the US Senate Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. "We ask our government--first and foremost--to open a clear path to allow us to achieve [our] goal," he told the senators, explaining that "a stable and flexible regulatory environment coupled with appropriate incentives is vital to our efforts to raise investment capital and realize our visions." He then laid out a Five-point Plan for what Kistler wanted from the feds:

"Do No Harm"--In other words, do no harm to Kistler. Mueller urged Congress to extend the third-party liability provisions of the US commercial space law, arguing that "expiration of the regulatory regime could inject great uncertainty into the market at a critical juncture in the industry's development."

Launch Contracts--"The government inevitably will be concerned about the risks associated with use of a new launch vehicle," Mueller admitted, but he suggested that "launch contracts can be structured to eliminate US government risks." (Potential risks could include class-action lawsuits in the event that a rocket took a nose-dive into Spokane, Boise, or Santa Barbara.)

Tax Incentives--Mueller explained that Kistler "generally supports the principle of 'zero taxes on zero gravity' [i.e., earnings from commercial space activities], at least for a defined period of time." He also proposed "a capital gains tax holiday for investments in qualified commercial space businesses."

Flexible Launch Licensing--Mueller told the senators of Kistler's concern that "the FAA may adopt many licensing approaches and requirements used traditionally for expendable launch vehicles." He suggested that the FAA adopt a "flexible licensing framework" under which the agency would determine the licensing requirements "best suited for each [Reusable Launch Vehicle] system in consultation with the developer" (i.e., Kistler).

Export Licensing--Mueller asked the Senate to allow Kistler to export its proprietary rocket technology to Australia, since Australia is "a close US ally." He assured the subcommittee that "Kistler supports efforts to impose stringent export controls where US national security is implicated."

Meuller failed to mention his company's agreement to transfer its technology to Taiwanese banking interests in exchange for a multimillion-dollar investment.

Vernon J. Brechin is an environmental consultant and historical researcher with a special interest in the Nevada Test Site. He recently assisted in the production of two video documentaries, "Atomic Journeys" and "Nuclear Dynamite." Gar Smith is editor of Earth Island Journal.

© Earth Island Journal, Winter 2000-2001