Bring Back Project Pilot
Most people have never heard of Project Pilot, the U.S. Navy’s maverick air-launched orbital booster program of 1958. Those who have call it an interesting failure. The project probably put one satellite in orbit in six launch attempts. It had minimal effect on the future: The designer of today’s only air-launched booster, the Pegasus, was unaware it existed.
I propose that we bring it back.
Bring all of it back: the shoestring budget, the small team and the lack of structure, reporting and paperwork. If we can’t do all the things in the outlandish concept I’m about to lay out, then let’s at least talk about which parts we can do. We know that no effort since 1958 has given us a cheap responsive launcher, so let’s consider something so crazy it just might work.
For the new Project Pilot, the Department of Defense or NASA would assemble a team of maybe two dozen engineers and technicians. (A couple might be retirees, since end-to-end, hands-on rocket building is out of fashion at best.) Give them access to stored or surplus stages, a test site and machine shop support. Tell them they have a year to put a 5-kilogram payload in orbit. Require short weekly progress reports. Ban PowerPoint and waive all other reporting. Above all, leave them alone.
The original program was started at the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) in California, now the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, when some of their people watched Sputnik 1 pass overhead and said, “We can do that.” They launched Project Pilot, or NOTSNIK. Working initially without official sanction, and with no budget until the last few months, they designed a five-stage all-solid rocket built of surplus and locally made stages. They called their approach “Tinkertoy engineering” — bolting things together to see what worked, fashioning a 1-kilogram satellite and hanging the results on an F4D Skyray fighter to be lofted over the Pacific.
Since then, the utility of nanosatellites has exploded: Missions undreamed of in 1958 can be accomplished with cubesat-based designs. The current nanosat launch approach, ride-sharing, is affordable, but everything depends on the schedule and orbit of the primary payload. Being able to pick the time and orbit is of special concern to the military, though scientific satellites would also benefit. “NOTSNIK 2” would aim to provide users the flexibility of air launch, a recurring cost far below any current launcher, and a response time measured in hours. The chief scientist at U.S. Air Force Space Command has put forth the challenge of a tenfold reduction in launch costs. Let’s do it.
The Project Pilot approach of try-and-fly design and minimal oversight is anathema in the modern age, and didn’t always work in 1958. Of six launches, one achieved at least a short-lived orbit, one may have orbited, and four were definite failures. One Navy report even called Project Pilot an illustration of how not to run a program. And yet it came so close that doing it again, with modern rocket technology, microelectronics (NOTSNIK lacked a flight computer for accurate orbital injection) and personal computer-based design and trajectory programs, should have a high probability of success. While the 1-kilogram NOTSNIK satellites carried a radio transmitter and sometimes a radiation counter, aiming for a 5-kilogram payload today will allow for sophisticated military and scientific missions. If it can evolve to 10 or 15 kilograms, we can start carrying medium-resolution imagers.
I know it wouldn’t be this simple. It would take considerable time and effort just to apply for the waivers needed. Fighter planes and test pilots may not always be available. The payload environment will be harsh. We’d need some expertise Project Pilot didn’t have, such as software skills. To say this can’t work, though, is to say our people are not as good as the Navy team of 1958, when surely they are. NOTSNIK veterans have told me the key was the freedom to try anything without going through channels or being micromanaged. They told me, “You couldn’t do this today.” Well, actually, we can, if we have the will. Physics and orbital mechanics haven’t changed.
How do we do it? Accept risk and development failures. Scrap rules on space-qualified parts. Follow safety rules for aircraft flight and ordnance handling, but waive the 24-month Universal Documentation System process for launch vehicles: If experienced space and missile engineers can’t build something like this safely, we’ve hired the wrong people. Don’t fly from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California — the no-risk approach to mission assurance (logical when flying billion-dollar satellites) is too entrenched there. China Lake might still be optimal: It has machine shops, launch aircraft, missile stages and quick ocean access. Operate without radar tracking — use GPS only. Since use of a launch range would cost more than the rocket itself, don’t use one: Fly to open ocean where there’s no reporting except for the minimum required by treaty, such as a Notice to Airmen.
U.S. government efforts to build cheap small launchers have struggled in part because they were traditional programs with traditional staff and overhead, and thus had unpalatable cost numbers. Project Pilot spent about $4 million ($29 million today), not counting the contributions of people using their spare time and grabbing surplus parts. The total cost of NOTSNIK 2 should be considerably less than a single Minotaur launch, and would result in an operational launch system at the end that accommodates the desire (in the military’s case, often the necessity) to get the most out of nanosats by launching them exactly when and where needed. Forgo the overhead of return on investment and business case analysis. No one asks about return on investment or break-even for a tactical missile program: They just aim at performing the mission as affordably as possible.
The concept of Project Pilot was sound. Its failures were due to insufficient time and money for testing. (More tests would have revealed they needed to strengthen the fin mounts and thicken the solid rocket motor casings.) They tried to do the whole thing, except for preliminary design work, in about five months. A year is more than enough time to do it right if we accept that the modern mindset about maximizing the payload and minimizing the risk has been carried too far. (It’s also short enough that the leadership would not rotate, an event that can devastate a small, innovative program.) Given the advancements in propellant and materials since 1958, modern stages should allow something akin to NOTSNIK (which weighed 950 kilograms and was only 4.4 meters long) to build in adequate margins rather than requiring precise trajectory shaping and bleeding-edge mass fractions. NOTSNIK had zero moving parts: A launcher with the same philosophy would be orders of magnitude simpler than, say, a Standoff Land Attack Missile Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) missile, which costs $500,000, and should cost less despite the missile’s advantage of mass production.
There are current programs for more affordable small launch. Great — keep them going. But if we want a true paradigm-smasher — reviving the NOTSNIK concept of a launcher as a “munitions-quality round” stored and used as much like a tactical missile as possible — then let’s turn our best people loose with maximum freedom and trust them to succeed.
If we take what worked from Project Pilot and combine it with today’s cheap commercial-off-the-shelf electronics and guidance, add the advantages of modern software and computers, and structure it in a mini-Skunk Works, we can do what they almost did in 1958: create a truly cheap, responsive nanosatellite launch system. The future will thank us for it.
Matt Bille is a freelance space writer and historian in Colorado Springs, Colo.