Depending on who you are talking to there were several very different reasons why the Internet was created, whether it was military command and control (Curtis LeMay told me that), to create a new communication and commerce infrastructure (Al Gore), or simply to advance the science of digital communications (lots of people). But Bob Taylor says the Internet was created to save money. And since Bob Taylor was, more than anyone, the guy who caused the Internet to be created, well I’ll believe him.
Bob Taylor, probably best known for building and managing the Computer Systems Laboratory at XEROX PARC from which emerged advances including Ethernet, laser printing, and SmallTalk, was before that the DARPA program manager who commissioned the ARPANet, predecessor to the Internet. Taylor was followed in that DARPA position by Larry Roberts, Bob Kahn, and Vint Cerf — all huge names in Internet lore — but someone had to pull the trigger and that someone was Bob Taylor, who was tired of buying mainframes for universities.
This was all covered in my PBS series Nerds 2.01: A Brief History of the Internet, by the way, which appears to be illegally available on YouTube if you bother to look a bit.
As DARPA’s point man for digital technology, Bob Taylor supported research at many universities, all of which asked for expensive mainframe computers as part of the deal. With money running short one budget cycle Taylor wondered why universities couldn’t share computing resources? And so the ARPANet was born as a digital network to support remote login. And that was it — no command and control, no eCommerce, no advancing science, just sharing expensive resources.
The people who built the ARPANet, including the boys and girls of BB&N in Boston and Len Kleinrock at UCLA, loved the experience and turned it into a great technical adventure. But the people who mainly used the ARPANet, which is to say all those universities that didn’t get shiny new mainframes, hated it for exactly that reason.
In fact I’d hazard a guess that thwarting the remote login intent of DARPA may have been the inspiration for many of the non-rlogin uses we have for the Internet today.
But this column is not about the ARPANet, it is about DARPA itself, because I have a bone to pick with those people, who could learn a thing or two still from Bob Taylor.
Last fall DARPA issued an RFP for a program called Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) which was literally launching small satellites into orbit from aircraft. Some readers will remember I have a keen interest in space and have been quietly working on a Moon shot of my own since 2007 — a project that features airborne launches. For adult supervision I’ve been working all that time with Tomas Svitek, a well known and perfectly legitimate rocket scientist who tolerates my wackiness.
Since DARPA seemed to be aiming right for what we considered to be our technical sweet spot (airborne satellite launches) Tomas and I decided to bid for one of the three ALASA Phase One contracts to be awarded.
We didn’t win the contract. And this column is about why we didn’t win it, which we just learned, months after the fact, in a DARPA briefing.
We didn’t get one of the three contracts because — silly us — our proposal would have actually accomplished the stated objective of the program, which was launching a 100 lb satellite into Low Earth Orbit from an aircraft on 24 hours notice from a launch base anywhere on Earth (location to be specified by DARPA when the clock starts ticking) for a launch cost of under $1 million.
Here is the tactical scenario as explained to all the bidders by DARPA. An incident happens somewhere in the world potentially requiring a U.S. military response. Viewers of The West Wing can imagine a spy satellite operated by the National Reconnaissance Office moving into position over the hotspot so people in the Situation Room can watch what’s happening. This satellite move may or may not happen in reality, but even if it does happen the intel isn’t shared with troops on the ground in any usable form. That’s what ALASA is supposed to be all about — providing satellite surveillance to commanders on the ground. At present such a launch costs $6 million and takes weeks to prepare, so $1 million on 24 hours notice would be quite an advance.
DARPA projected the DoD would need as many as 30 such launches per year.
The Phase One winners were Boeing with a proposal to launch from an F-15, Lockheed-Martin with a proposal to launch from an F-22, and Virgin Galactic with a proposal to launch from White Knight 2.
None of these solutions will work. The F-15 and F-22 are both constrained by the size of payload that can be carried. The F-15 is too low to the ground (I’ve measured this myself during a scouting mission to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) and the F-22, being a stealth fighter, carries its ordinance internally in bomb bays. Both are limited to carrying under 5,000 lbs.
White Knight 2 could probably carry enough weight, but couldn’t get it halfway around the world on 24 hours notice.
Our solution, based on five years of work including scrounging in Ukrainian corn fields, was entirely practical. The only aircraft capable of fulfilling this mission with anything less than heroic measures is the reconnaissance version of the MiG-25, which is 50 percent larger than an F-15 and carries a 5300-liter external fuel tank weighing 10,450 lbs. Using the same perchlorate solid rocket fuel used to launch the Space Shuttle (raw material cost $2 per pound) we could do the job safely and reliably for a launch price easily under $600K. Capable of Mach 2.83 the MiG could meet the 24 hour global deployment deadline, too.
So why didn’t we at least get the safety position among the three winners?
That, my friends, comes back to the question why was the Internet invented? The DARPA of today, which by the way trumpets at every opportunity their singular involvement in starting the Internet, has evidently forgotten that Internet was invented to save money, because DARPA in the case of ALASA doesn’t really want a practical solution. They want heroic measures.
We’re told we were rejected because our proposal used solid fuel rockets. Our solution wasn’t (and this is a direct quote) “the DARPA way.”
Yes, our proposal was practical and yes, it would probably work, but DARPA wants to push the technical envelope toward higher-impulse liquid-fueled rockets that can be small enough to fit under an F-15 or inside an F-22. White Knight 2, it turns out, won the safety position even though it can’t fulfill the entire mission.
There’s nothing wrong with DARPA wanting to advance the science of space propulsion. But if that was their intent, why didn’t they say so?
It is very doubtful that ALASA will result in any tactical satellites actually being deployed to support commanders in the field. Not even a liquid-fueled rocket under 5,000 lbs can put 100 lbs into orbit. Dilithium crystals are required.
Fortunately by the time DARPA figures this out Tomas and I will have made the entire program unnecessary. You see we have this great new idea….