- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

The Space Commission chaired last year by Donald Rumsfeld before he became defense secretary predicted that future space warfare is a "virtual certainty," and we had better prepare for it. The United States, the commission said, must begin now to develop the ability to protect its satellites and conduct military operations in and from space.

As the undisputed world leader in information technology, the United States has hundreds of satellites on orbit. This country has become heavily dependent on satellites for communications, navigation and a host of other uses for commercial and military purposes. That makes it a high national priority to protect both the satellites that are essential for military operations and the commercial ones that sustain the infrastructure of a modern society. But friendly satellites cannot be protected, or hostile ones attacked, without weapons that can operate in space. The commission found that the military needs space weapons to deter attacks in or from space, and to defend against attacks if they occur.

One of the first things the military needs to operate in space is a manned vehicle that can launch on short notice, operate in orbit around the globe, return and land safely, and go back again shortly thereafter. In other words, a space plane.

But this requires new technology that takes years to develop. Fortunately, NASA has been funding the development of such technologies since 1996 in a project known as X-33.

The goal was to build a plane that can launch to orbit on a single rocket stage, return and land on Earth, and be ready to go again within two days. NASA developed the X-33 under its space launch initiative, seeking a less expensive and reusable replacement for the space shuttle. NASA and the aerospace industry have spent more than $1.2 billion on the X-33, 95 percent of the parts have been produced, and 75 percent of the space plane is complete.

Its revolutionary aerospike engine has been tested 14 times with great success. But despite the success, NASA canceled the program in March for lack of funds.

Gen. Ralph Eberhart, commander of the U.S. Space Command, wants the Air Force to assume development of the X-33, and the Air Force is now studying that option. The X-33 is an unmanned autonomous prototype that will not go into orbit. But it is developing and testing the new technologies needed for rapid, reliable and less expensive access to space, for civilian as well as military purposes.

For space operations, it is like the early days of manned flight. The X-33 will demonstrate which technologies work and which need more development. The prototype can be completed and flown by 2005 if funding is restored to the program in 2002. As the technology is proven, it will be up to the administration and Congress to decide whether to develop a manned space plane for the Air Force. But that cannot be done without the development of this technology, which will be a hedge against the use of satellite killers or other space weapons in any future conflict.

Such weapons both exist and are under development. The old Soviet Union built a co-orbital satellite killer that it flight-tested in space at least 20 times, and which was operational with Soviet strategic forces for more than a decade. Improvements on that technology exist in Russia today. And China reportedly is developing a hunter-killer micro-satellite that would attach itself to an adversary's satellite and destroy it. Protection against such devices, as well as the ability to rapidly project power through space around the globe, will be essential in future conflicts.

Space-plane supporters in Congress are ready to add $30 million to the fiscal 2002 defense budget to continue X-33 development. Republican Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Wayne Allard of Colorado, Bob Smith of New Hampshire and Sen. Mary Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, and others have urged the Air Force to take over the X-33 program, complete its development and begin flight tests to check out the new technologies.

The Defense Department, and the Air Force in particular, should get behind it. After all, the future of the Air Force is in space. And it is ridiculous for government and industry to spend well more than a billion dollars on a project and then walk away when it is nearly complete. But most important, developing space-plane technology could help deter the "space Pearl Harbor" the commission warned about.

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