SUMMERLAND KEY, Fla.–
The good news for small-launch-vehicle developers is that the Pentagon’s new Operationally Responsive Space office in New Mexico will have as much as $87 million to spend in 2008, and a possible $408 million to spend over the next five years, according to the Defense Department’s long-range plan.
The bad news for small-rocket developers is that not all the money will go toward developing or buying rockets.
U.S. defense officials coined the term operationally
responsive space (ORS) to describe the ability to launch new space-based communications or spy sensors quickly – within a matter of hours to a matter of months – in response to unforeseen developments during a war. That capability does not yet exist.
Early ORS research work was dominated by development of small rockets via the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Falcon Small Launch Vehicle program, which is not part of the new ORS office.
DARPA helped Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of El Segundo, Calif., develop its Falcon 1 launch vehicle, which fizzled 29-seconds after liftoff in its first launch in 2006, and fell short of orbit in a second attempt in March. DARPA
also is helping AirLaunch LLC of Kirkland, Wash., develop a rocket that would be pulled by gravity out the back of a C-17 cargo plane.
The first job for the ORS office will be to adjust the spending priorities. “Whereas before we might have been looking at responsive launch, now ORS is going to look across the entire spectrum at the things that need to be in place to provide us an end-to-end capability,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Kevin McLaughlin, director of the ORS office at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
The Pentagon opened the new office
May 21 in response to language in the 2007 Defense Authorization Act.
Reacting quickly to a request from a commander will require more than rockets, McLaughlin explained. It will require new satellites, modular payloads that can be plugged into satellites quickly before launch, command and control systems, and systems to task, process and disseminate information from new space sensors, he said.
“Responsive launch is just a single component of a much broader construct with regard to ORS,” McLaughlin added.
A good chunk of the budget will fund industry work in partnership with the government. “There will definitely be [requests for proposals] and new work. Very little of that [budget] is going to go to run our office. We’re a small office and we have very little overhead,” McLaughlin said.
Among the rocket companies looking for new funds will be Lockheed Martin’s Michoud Operations in Louisiana. Under DARPA’s Falcon program, the company had proposed a hybrid, liquid-oxygen
solid-fueled rocket designed to launch 450-kilogram
payloads to 160 kilometers
. DARPA did not select Michoud to continue its work.
Mike Gnau, Lockheed Martin’s director of advanced programs at Michoud, said the company has kept development work going with internal funds, and is always watching for grant opportunities. “We’re continually trying to find research and development funding to continue at that level. It’s a hard hunt,” he said.
engineers are preparing to conduct a hot fire test of their hybrid engine at Orion Propulsion’s test facility located near the Huntsville Airport, Gnau said.
In July, DARPA and the U.S. Air Force gave AirLaunch
approval to begin the next phase in development of its rocket, which is powered by liquid oxygen and propane.
“We’ll upgrade our test stands to incorporate sensors and instrumentation so we can get more data on the propulsion system,” said AirLaunch President Debra FacktorLe
. The new phase will focus on the company’s liquid-oxygen-propane vapor pressurization propulsion system.
There are no turbo-pumps in the system, Le
said. It is self-pressurized.
grabbed headlines last year by dropping water-filled dummy boosters from the back of a C-17 to demonstrate its “gravity extraction technique,” which uses no pallets or hardware that could foul the rocket.
The AirLaunch and Falcon work does not fall under McLaughlin’s office, but he said he is following the progress closely.
For now, the small Minotaur rockets built for the Air Force by Orbital Sciences Corp of Dulles, Va., out of retired-U.S. ballistic missiles are the best ORS launch options, McLaughlin said.
“If someone like SpaceX or another company demonstrated – reliably – the same performance but at less cost, we’re going to be looking for the most reliable, cost-effective ride we can,” McLaughlin said. “I do think the Minotaur 1 and 4 are probably the best we’re going to get for a couple years on the responsive side.”