WASHINGTON — With fresh votes of confidence — and money — from NASA, Generation Orbit Launch Services of Atlanta is working on an air-launch system capable of sending about 40 kilograms of payload to orbit in single shot.

The company’s GOLauncher system would use a small business jet to carry a two-stage rocket, with a solid core and a liquid upper stage, to altitude for launch. Its first mission, a 2016 launch for NASA, is slated to take off from GOLauncher’s home base at the Cecil Field Spaceport, part of Cecil Airport in Jacksonville, Fla.

In the long term, Generation Orbit is betting on the emergence of a commercial market for tiny satellites. But in the here-and-now, the company is relying on NASA to get flying. On Nov. 12, Generation Orbit netted a $100,000 grand prize in the NASA-sponsored NewSpace Business Plan Competition, which follows a $2.1 million contract it got from the agency in September. To staff up to 10 full-timers and compete for the NASA funding, the company had to spend about $800,000, Chairman and Chief Executive John Olds estimates.

The prize money “is a great boost for our fundraising efforts,” Olds wrote in a Nov. 12 email. However, it is small fry compared with the NASA Launch Services Enabling eXploration & Technology (NEXT) contract the company received to launch a 15-kilogram payload to an orbit of at least 425 kilometers in 2016.

NEXT is part of NASA’s plan to reduce a backlog of more than 50 cubesats — small spacecraft assembled from standardized units weighing about 1 kilogram each and measuring 10 centimeters on a side — the agency has built up through its Cubesat Launch Initiative flight-brokerage program. 

Although there are ample rideshare opportunities — such as the  Nov. 18 Minotaur 1 launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Va., that carried the U.S. Air Force’s STPSat-3 spacecraft and 28 smaller satellites — tiny satellites could get to space faster and more regularly with a dedicated launcher, NASA officials say.

Generation Orbit plans to provide that launcher, and it plans to do so without building things like airplanes, rocket engines or runways.

“Instead of starting from scratch, we see ourselves much more as systems architects or designers, integrators and operators,” Anthony Piplica, the company’s chief operating officer, told SpaceNews in September. “It’s kind of a lot closer to the original Orbital Sciences model, versus a vertically integrated SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies Corp.] model.”

Piplica believes the space launch technologies the U.S. government has been investing in over the years are becoming mature enough for a company like Generation Orbit to cherry pick a few subsystems and integrate them into a low-cost launcher — for very small payloads, anyway. 

“At this point in time, the government has made these types of investments in technologies that haven’t been applied yet,” Piplica said. “They’ve been developed, their [technology readiness levels] are high, and we see it as our opportunities to apply those to a commercial business.”

A sampling of the technologies Generation Orbit plans to combine to test suborbital versions of its GOLauncher system includes:

  • A Gulfstream G3 business jet modified for under-fuselage payload carriage by Calspan Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y.
  • A kerosene-fueled rocket motor provided by Ventions of San Francisco — a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contractor contributing to the agency’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access program, which is aimed at launching small payloads with 24 hours notice for less than $1 million a launch. GOLauncher would use the Ventions engine as a second stage. Its first stage would use a solid motor built by a U.S. solid rocket producer he declined to identify. “[W]e are not acquiring the solid rocket from this company’s sort of standard space production solid rocket line,” Olds said. “In fact, it’s derived from a missile application that they have and is built on a missile assembly and production line and is in production and is available already.”
  • Avionics and payload integration systems from Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems of Irvine, Calif.

Calspan, Ventions and Tyvak are all under contract with Generation Orbit, Olds said.

Meanwhile, in February or March, the company plans to fly a captive-carry test, in which the GOLauncher aircraft will take to the skies with a dummy rocket strapped to its underbelly, Olds said. Manufacturing on this rocket-shaped mass-simulator began in October.

Despite the NASA patronage the company is depending on to make its first flight, Generation Orbit’s ultimate aspiration is to position itself for a commercial small-satellite boom that one of its executives believes is lurking just over the horizon.

“In the last 18 months, there has been an interesting trend: Suddenly you have all these companies, whether it’s Planetary Resources, Planet Labs, GeoOptics, NovaWurks, Skybox, Deep Space Industries, they all have raised funding, many of them on the open capital markets, of more than $100 million between them for business plans predicated upon not two or three but dozens of spacecraft,” Max Vozoff, Generation Orbit’s senior business strategist, told SpaceNews in September. 

Vozoff, who joined Generation Orbit in May, is the former senior mission manager and director of civil business development at SpaceX, where he learned something about the intersection of space entrepreneurship and the U.S. government’s aerospace traditions — namely, that big-government funding can open doors for space companies looking to squeeze into truly commercial markets.

This time, Vozoff said, he sees NASA’s experiment to field a small-sat launcher as a means of positioning Generation Orbit to capitalize on the small-satellite launch boom he expects to arrive sometime around 2014 or 2015.

Around then, “there are six, eight, 10 or more companies, each of which plan to launch dozens of … short-lived spacecraft … that go one or two years on orbit and need replenishment,” Vozoff said.

“It is a unique moment in time,” he added. “We are seeing the emergence of real demand in the small satellite industry.”

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...