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Satellite killers and ULA

Recent news that China has developed, and successfully deployed, a satellite killer could turn into an economic positive for Decatur.

According to U.S. officials, China launched a ballistic missile Jan. 11 and intentionally used it to destroy its defunct weather satellite. Certainly nothing to cheer about, but the impact on Decatur could be significant.

Decatur is home to the sole production facility for governmental satellite-launch vehicles.

The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing Co.’s and Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle divisions, already produces all Delta II and Delta IV rockets at the former Boeing plant.

Soon, it will begin producing the Atlas V.

The Pentagon approved ULA because it was the best way it could figure to maintain “assured access to space,” a U.S. policy emphasizing the importance of being able to put satellites into orbit quickly.

“Assured access” takes on new urgency when a potential enemy shows the ability to take out our satellites.

Our military, tiny compared to China’s, derives much of its effectiveness from technologies that depend on satellites.

As a Pentagon official said in recommending ULA approval, “Recent wartime operations demonstrate the military’s increased dependence on space systems. … U.S. can no longer protect national security without space.”

ULA impact

Loren Thompson Ph.D., a military and aerospace analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said China’s activities could have a direct impact on ULA.

“If the risk to satellites increases, we’ll need to increase the number of back-up rockets,” said Thompson. “We have back-up satellites, but we’ve not invested much in back-up launch vehicles. That will have to change.”

Even if China has no inclination to attack U.S. satellites, its destruction of its own satellite created a tremendous amount of debris that poses a threat to the many U.S. satellites in nearby orbits.

While the military angle is most alarming, the risk to commercial satellites can’t be ignored. As a State Department spokesman said Jan. 19, criticizing China’s test, we have grown dependent on weather satellites, communications satellites, navigation systems “and other devices to be able to conduct modern life as we know it.”

Humans next? Satellites may not be the only payload for future ULA flights. Bigelow Aerospace has a contract to explore the possibility of modifying an Atlas V, formerly produced by Lockheed Martin Corp., but soon to be built in Decatur, to take passengers to an orbiting private space station. It’s not just science fiction. The space station, called Genesis I, is already in orbit.

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Eric Fleischauer
Capital considerations

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