For decades, publicly and privately funded groups have sought to develop rockets to send satellites into orbit from conventional aircraft because air-launched rockets need much less fuel to escape Earth’s atmosphere than those launched from the ground. To date, however, only Orbital Sciences Corp. has succeeded with Pegasus, a delta-wing launch vehicle that drops from a converted Lockheed L-1011 Stargazer before propelling payloads weighing as much as 450 kilograms to low Earth orbit.
Generation Orbit plans to perform a similar service for small satellites with GOLauncher 2, a two-stage liquid rocket designed to fly off a modified Gulfstream jet and carry payloads weighing 45 kilograms or less to low Earth orbit. In 2013, NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida awarded Generation Orbit a $2.1 million contract for the maiden voyage of GOLauncher 2 to send three triple cubesats to a 425-kilometer orbit as part of the NASA Launch Services Enabling eXploration and Technology (NEXT) program.
Generation Orbit also is developing GOLauncher 1, a single-stage air-launched liquid rocket designed for microgravity research, high-altitude science or hypersonic testing. In July, Generation Orbit announced that the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s Aerospace Systems Directorate awarded the firm a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to develop GOLauncher 1.
Anthony J. “A.J.” Piplica, 26, joined Generation Orbit’s parent company, Atlanta-based SpaceWorks Enterprises Inc., as an intern while attending graduate school at the Georgia Institute of Technology. There, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees while focusing on aerodynamics, fluid mechanics and entrepreneurship. Prior to joining SpaceWorks, Piplica worked at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston through a Cooperative Education program with Jacobs Engineering Group Inc.
Piplica spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.
How did Generation Orbit begin?
SpaceWorks always had unique knowledge of the small-satellite market. You see it in the quality of the annual market assessments we publish. Then we had a number of projects over a six- to eight-year time frame related to air launch. We worked on a NASA-Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Horizontal Launch Study and [DARPA’s] Responsive Access, Small Cargo, Affordable Launch. We worked with IHI Aerospace Co. Ltd. of Japan on an air-launch project. We saw a unique opportunity to put those two major competencies together to attack a market.
Yes. We had to be willing to throw caution to the wind. SpaceWorks has made a substantial investment to get Generation Orbit as far as it is right now. It’s finally on its own two feet.
Does SpaceWorks disclose the value of that investment?
Not publicly. But it’s substantial. We formed the company in 2011. We knew DARPA was going to start an air-launch program. We put together a team and bid. We didn’t win. At that point, January 2012, we had to decide to cut our losses or keep going. We kept going.
In September 2013, NASA selected Generation Orbit for NEXT. Was that important for the company?
That was a huge validation not only of our technical solution but the price point and everything. Now it’s up to us to deliver. It’s not just technical challenges we face. We have financial challenges too. But we are confident.
Do venture capitalists and investors, in general, understand your business?
We talk to investors all the time. We have to explain the value proposition that we understand and our customers see. It’s a tough mountain to climb.
Have you had success with outside investors?
We do not have a venture capitalist to fund us all the way through the program. SpaceWorks provided the initial investment and we built ourselves into a viable business. We paid taxes last year.
What is your strategy?
We go after contracts that attack little pieces of our vision. The Air Force Research Laboratory is interested in using GOLauncher 1 for hypersonic testing. Everything that we are doing under that program also is traceable to GOLauncher 2.
In July, you conducted a captive carry test of your Flight Experiment Testbed from Cecil Field Spaceport in Jacksonville, Florida. What did you accomplish?
We tested operations at Cecil Spaceport. They had a set of procedures they put in place when they put together their Federal Aviation Administration Spaceport Master Plan. This is the first time they got to exercise it. We flew a set of high-altitude mock release maneuvers and characterized the captive carry environment on the aircraft with a standardized pod. Everything went pretty smoothly. We had a propellant tank that was instrumented for measuring propellant dynamics and a vibrations experiment. We carried a high school cubesat payload from BlueCube Aerospace. We wanted to fly a cubesat deployer but couldn’t get one in time. We did this whole thing in 10 weeks.
Why did you do all that in 10 weeks?
We gave ourselves an aggressive schedule. In the future, we want to be able to tell people at Cecil, “We will be launching in 10 weeks. Be ready.” So we did that and they were able to accommodate us. Our goal is get to the point where we could launch within three months of contract signature. It won’t be that quick on the first couple of flights. Those flights will be sold a couple of years ahead of time.
It helps us from a business perspective and it helps our customers to know what’s coming. It will be difficult to get to that kind of cadence, but that’s the goal. The plan that we’ve put together can hit it. We have to demonstrate it.
How is customer response?
We have letters of intent that more than cover 24 flights per year. Our challenge is converting those letters of intent to purchase orders and continuing to make progress technically so we can stay on schedule.
Can you get purchase orders before you prove the technology?
Yes. NASA has bought in. The trick now is to get the commercial guys to step up. We are in the process of manifesting for 2017. We would like to get four flights or so on the books. That would be a huge validation to get that many in the next three to six months.
Building a business around air-launching rockets has proved challenging for many groups. Why do you think you can make it work?
Part of the issue is the aircraft. We picked an aircraft, the Gulfstream business jet, with a broad user base. That allows us to mitigate risk up front when we are building our flight rate up. We will not be inundated with overhead.
Are you leasing the aircraft?
Yes. It’s a special use aircraft. There are all sorts of pods and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions that use external stores on specially modified jets. One of our partners, Calspan Corp., leases specially modified aircraft. Leasing the aircraft early on is a key part of making this business successful.
Do you have other partners?
Yes. We don’t have the resources or the time to design and build everything from scratch, so we’ve put together a team of small businesses with key component technologies. Propulsion is one. We are working with a small company called Ventions. Ventions is working with DARPA to develop engine technology. We are working with Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. Tyvak is working under a NASA SBIR to develop a launch vehicle-agnostic avionics platform that we are adapting for our system.
What’s your role?
Putting it all together and subsystems: faring, separation systems, interstage, payload interface, aircraft interface. Our real challenge is on the operations and manufacturing side. We are growing the expertise to put it all together into a system that works at a price point that allows us to access this market.
The small-satellite market seems very price sensitive.
We think we offer a solution that the market will use in a different way than it uses secondary launches. There are a lot of applications for a system like this. Obviously, it is useful for companies deploying satellite constellations.
We offer the ability to design spacecraft without the constraints that come with flying as secondary payloads, such as conforming to a payload form factor or constraints on propulsion systems, power systems and deployable structures. Another big part of our value proposition is schedule control.
In the technology demonstration phase and even in the initial deployment, companies launching constellations generally can wait for rides to become available. But when it comes to operating a business and having to return dollars to your shareholders on schedule, the ability to control your own launch schedule is imperative.
What will a ride on GOLauncher 2 cost?
The full launch vehicle is $2.5 million. If you want to send a three-unit cubesat to low Earth orbit, it’s on the order of $350,000 to $400,000. It costs more than flying as a secondary payload but it’s a different service. Our challenge is to build the value around the rocket.
Why do you think so many companies are trying to develop small-satellite launch vehicles right now?
This market is growing. It can support more than one launch provider, but the first one who succeeds will have a distinct advantage. That’s why we are pushing as fast as we can.