LOS ANGELES -- In what has been a tightly kept secret, the Air Force is preparing to launch 2,000 pounds of sand into orbit next year -- at an estimated cost of $70 million -- on a Milstar communications satellite to replace the weight from an electronic system that was never completed, the Los Angeles Times has learned.
The controversial $15 billion satellite program, designed to be the Pentagon's main communications link during a global nuclear war, is coming under increasing scrutiny, both because of its high cost and limited usefulness in the aftermath of the Cold War.
The RAND Corp. issued a report yesterday saying the Air Force should consider canceling Milstar, saving taxpayers $5 billion for four future Milstar satellites and about $1.5 billion for the Titan IV launch rockets over the next four years.
An Air Force official knowledgeable about Milstar said the sand, encased in aluminum, was installed as dead weight as a replacement for the sophisticated electronic gear that was plagued by technical problems.
el,.5L The disclosure was corroborated by another official knowledgeable about Milstar. Neither official agreed to be identified by name.
The high cost of space launches usually requires that every ounce of payload be carefully controlled. The launch of a ton of dead weight would be unprecedented, according to the Air Force official and other experts.