The Complex

Is This Tiny Shuttle The Future of Spaceflight?

Late last month, the future of spaceflight -- a mini-space shuttle dubbed the Dream Chaser -- made its first unpowered glide-flight. It was highly successful, at least until it touched down on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base and promptly flipped over onto its back.

Ignominious start though it may be, it's just the beginning. Designer Sierra Nevada Corporation plans to quickly repair the vehicle and fly it again. A second Dream Chaser is under construction.

The Dream Chaser has an airplane-like "lifting" body. That means it can reenter the atmosphere relatively slowly in comparison to traditional capsules, and can glide to a graceful landing rather than plummet down to Earth. No lifting bodies have been used before on operational flights and testing was rare, which makes it a riskier than approach capsules. While the space shuttle's wings generated some lift, the fuselage (as in most aircraft) was aerodynamic deadweight, so it had a poor glide ratio and fast atmospheric re-entry.

But the idea has been around a long time, and Sierra Nevada is taking the least-risky option for such a craft: Dream Chaser is an exact replica of an earlier design ground-tested by NASA, so the company has plenty of wind tunnel data. The NASA design is itself a copy of a Soviet lifting body that flew a handful of times in testing.

Dream Chaser and two other vehicles -- the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 capsules -- are being built largely by government funds through NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap) program, which has dished out just over $1 billion to date in an attempt to build a crewed, reusable spacecraft. In many ways, this is a situation that closely parallels the state of aviation in the 1920s, when government funding kept commercial airmail services viable and wealthy individuals paid to test the boundaries.

Much like aviation during that time, access to space is about to get much easier. Satellites are getting smaller and cheaper with the maturing of satellites the size of shoeboxes or smaller (CubeSats, nanosats, picosats, and the like) such that even small colleges can afford to send satellites into orbit. One group even launched the electronic guts of a cellphone into orbit as an experiment (it worked). Such small satellites allow previously unheard-of funders: wealthy individuals, small groups, and Kickstarter can now put satellites into space.

The largest cost to satellite builders is usually launch costs, which vary widely depending on the rocket and necessary orbit. The long-held belief in the space industry is that demand for launches will rise exponentially when the liftoff price drops to $1,000 per pound; the newest systems have brought the cost down around $2,000, and continue dropping with incremental improvements and efficiencies. Getting closer to that goal and (perhaps most importantly) interest from wealthy entrepreneurs and government support has allowed the flexibility to pursue relatively riskier approaches, and more of them.

Getting into space is incredibly hard. Reaching orbital velocity -- about 17,000 miles per hour -- requires perfect coordination and a rocket that can withstand enormous pressures and temperatures, built with high-grade materials and immaculate machining. The complexity means that rockets do not tolerate minor mistakes or the unexpected, such that every single launch is a nail-biting experience for the builders. As such, they are immensely expensive, but usually useful for less than 15 minutes -- several hours at the most if the second stage is required to maneuver once in space. Once done with the job, they are nothing more than expensive scrap, generally left to decay at the bottom of the sea or burn up during atmospheric reentry, or cases simply float around in space for eternity.

Reusability has long been a Holy Grail for spaceflight, and it's easy to understand why. Despite the higher cost of each flight and decreased payload, amortizing the engineering and material costs over a series of flights would be enough to ultimately drag the price down. Though launching is almost always the most expensive part of spaceflight, the obvious first target for reusability is the spacecraft that sits atop the rocket. Spacecraft are relatively small compared to their launch systems and need not be able to do more than basic maneuvering in the vacuum of space, so great margins can be reserved for the weight of heavier structures required for reusability.

Until now, however, it has simply been too risky and expensive to bother with. Only the iconic space shuttles have succeeded in flying twice. And they belonged to a special breed of beast; though conceived to be easily reusable, the shuttle cost well over $1 billion dollars per flight and required months of reconditioning to fly again. The program was largely considered a failure in those terms.

Today's space entrepreneurs want to do more than build a reusable spacecraft, however. They want to fly the entire launch vehicle over and over again. The first stage is the biggest part of the launch vehicle, but is only used for several minutes at most to power the rest of 'the stack' through the thickest part of the atmosphere. Nothing is ever easy with space launches. Making a first stage survivable means both strengthening its structure and figuring out a way to land softly; because each moving part adds complexity, weight, and cost, it has been considered impractical. But the same amortizing logic holds, and several companies are working towards solutions. Elon Musk's SpaceX has recently retired its Grasshopper hover test bed and is building a larger successor. Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin has flown a small suborbital test bed at least once. (It blew up. They are reportedly building another.)

Musk, for one, has sworn to build a fully reusable rocket. The biggest challenge (which Musk describes as "super-damn hard") is a reusable second stage. The second stage (on some systems topped by a third and even fourth stage) is what actually brings the spacecraft into space, so making it reusable means it must withstand the full stresses of atmospheric reentry. Oh, and by the way, it must work in a vacuum, and it must be light enough to loft significant payloads at competitive prices, and somehow it must land softly after all that.

Because of the immense costs and risks, launch systems, spacecraft, and satellites have always had a very high barrier to entry. Lowering that barrier means room for more and better versions, and better tolerance for risk -- which itself encourages more of the same. One day someone will break through the $1,000-per-pound barrier, and when they do, just as aircraft builders of the 1920s could not possibly envision modern aviation, we cannot predict the future of spaceflight -- but it is exciting. The sky, to use an old expression, will no longer be the limit.


National Security

Exclusive: The CIA, Not The Pentagon, Will Keep Running Obama's Drone War

In May, the White House leaked word that it would start shifting drone operations from the shadows of the CIA to the relative sunlight of the Defense Department in an effort to be more transparent about the controversial targeted killing program. But six months later, the so-called migration of those operations has stalled, and it is now unlikely to happen anytime soon, Foreign Policy has learned.

The anonymous series of announcements coincided with remarks President Obama made on counterterrorism policy at National Defense University in which he called for "transparency and debate on this issue." A classified Presidential Policy Guidance on the matter, issued at the same time, caught some in government by surprise, triggering a scramble at the Pentagon and at CIA to achieve a White House objective. The transfer was never expected to happen overnight. But it is now clear the complexity of the issue, the distinct operational and cultural differences between the Pentagon and CIA and the bureaucratic politics of it all has forced officials on all sides to recognize transferring drone operations from the Agency to the Defense Department represents, for now, an unattainable goal.

"The physics of making this happen quickly are remarkably difficult," one U.S. official told FP. "The goal remains the same, but the reality has set in."

Another U.S. official emphasized that the transfer is still continuing. "This is the policy, and we're moving toward that policy, but it will take some time," the official said. "The notion that there has been some sort of policy reversal is just not accurate. I think from the moment the policy was announced it was clear it was not something that would occur overnight or immediately."

The official noted that all involved are mindful not to disrupt the drone program just for the sake of completing the transfer from the CIA to the military. "While we work jointly towards this transition, we also want to ensure that we maintain capabilities."

Officials at the CIA and the Defense Department are loathe to try and fix a program that they don't think is broken, even if it has become a political liability for Obama, who has faced constant pressure from human rights activists, his political base, and a growing chorus of libertarian Republicans to scale back the program and subject it to greater public scrutiny. But the pitfalls of transferring operations reside in more practical concerns. The U.S. official said that while the platforms and the capabilities are common to either the Agency or the Pentagon, there remain distinctly different approaches to "finding, fixing and finishing" terrorist targets. The two organizations also use different approaches to producing the "intelligence feeds" upon which drone operations rely. Perhaps more importantly, after years of conducting drone strikes, the CIA has developed an expertise and a taste for them. The DOD's appetite to take over that mission may not run very deep.

The military operates its own drones, of course, and has launched hundreds of lethal strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the CIA is more "agile," another former official said, and has a longer track record of being able to sending drones into places where U.S. combat forces cannot go.

"The agency can do it much more efficiently and at lower cost than the military can," said one former intelligence official. Another former official with extensive experience in intelligence and military operations said it takes the military longer to deploy drones -- in part because the military uses a larger support staff to operate the aircraft.

The military also cannot conduct overt, hostile action in Pakistan, where the drones have been most active and are practically the only means the United States has to attack terrorists and militants in remote regions. Yes, the pace of strikes has significantly decreased since the 2010 peak of an estimated 122 unmanned attacks in Pakistan. But the drones are most certainly still flying. Last week, a drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, who had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head for his involvement in a 2009 attack in Afghanistan. Over the summer, a spate of drone strikes killed a dozen militants in Yemen.

Keeping the drones with the CIA also offers legal cover for drone strikes, former officials argued. By law, the military is not supposed to conduct hostile actions outside a declared war zone, although special forces do so on occasion acting at the CIA's behest.

When the White House began floating the idea earlier this year of transferring the drone program to the military, some lawmakers were skeptical, said a former U.S. official. John Brennan -- the White House counterrorism czar turned CIA director -- might have allegedly grown uncomfortable with the targeted killings that he helped oversee for so long. But the congressmen doubted whether the government of Pakistan would ever allow drone strikes run by the U.S. military to occur in their country.

"That was the president's aspirational goal, but no one ever believed the Pakistanis were going to let us do that," said the former official, who was involved in discussions over transferring the drone program to the military.

For years, the Pakistani government has given tacit approval to CIA-led strikes. But they were conducted as covert actions under U.S. law, meaning they were never officially acknowledged by U.S. officials. That gave the Pakistanis some wiggle room to tell an angry public, which would never tolerate American troops on the ground, that Pakistani leaders had nothing to do with the strikes on their territory.

Even though Obama and other senior U.S. officials now publicly discuss CIA drone strikes, they are still conducted as covert operations. In practical terms, that means it's extremely difficult for journalists and outside researchers to obtain data from the CIA about its drone operations. And they are still briefed to Congress as covert operations, so relatively few lawmakers and congressional staff know about them.

The secrecy of drone operations could have far reaching effects on U.S. foreign policy as other nations build and deploy their own drone fleets.

"We are setting precedent that other nations will follow," said Micah Zenko, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations who closely follows the CIA drone program. "If the executive branch wants maximum authority with this very minimal amount of transparency and limited-in-scope oversight, that's a precedent that other countries will look to as well."

U.S. Air Force