The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is watching the work of entrepreneurial aerospace firms closely to see how the
lab might take advantage of new systems to meet its own space transportation needs.


In the near term, the laboratory is keeping its eye on
commercial vehicles, such as reusable systems that might prove useful for
launching experimental payloads that could be returned to Earth for examination,
Bruce Thieman, responsive space capability lead at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s air vehicles directorate,
Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.


Over the long term, Air Force Research Laboratory officials hope these initial entrepreneurial launch systems lead to
versions that could handle other military tasks such as
cargo delivery or
troop transport – global missions
traditionally are handled by aircraft like C-130s today, Thieman said in a May 21 interview.


The Air Force recognizes that it is to its own advantage for these firms to succeed, and the service is looking for ways to help, Thieman said.
For example, the Air Force organizes the annual Responsive Access to Space Technology Exchange, which ran from May 19-23 in Ohio, and is focused on presentations that address mature technology that could help vehicle designers with issues that they face in the next year or two, Thieman said.

The laboratory
also is interested in partnerships where it can
contribute funding to the development of a
new private system,
Thieman said.
For example, the lab currently is providing funding assistance to XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., which is developing the Lynx suborbital vehicle, he said.

The deal with XCOR, which was made through a small business innovative research grant, was
worth $400,000 in 2008, and $750,000 in 2009. In return XCOR is studying
the hardware issues related to
reusable space vehicles that need to be available for another mission shortly after returning to Earth, Thieman said.


Such issues have to be addressed to ensure that the new space vehicles can function with the safety and reliability associated with aircraft today. Until those issues are resolved, commercial and military customers alike might be
reluctant to use new systems
, Thieman said. The success of the commercial flights
likely will be a key factor in driving government interest in using the vehicles, he said.

The research laboratory is looking at the potential for buying cargo space for its experiments on commercial spaceflights operated by firms like Virgin Galactic, Thieman said. This could provide a valuable opportunity to study the effects of the zero-gravity environment on newly developed satellite components before they are used aboard satellites, he said.


While expendable vehicles are used for this purpose today, better examinations can be performed reusable
if the components being studied are returned to Earth,
Thieman said.

George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s senior advisor in Washington, said in a May 16 interview that the company
currently is focused on the space tourism market, but is open to talking with other potential customers like the military about future work.


The military
also could be a customer of firms like Armadillo Aerospace, which is working on a vehicle that vertically takes off and lands. Such a vehicle could be useful for environmental sensing missions traditionally handled by suborbital sounding rockets, Thieman said. Relying on a reusable vehicle for sensing missions
could be much less expensive than expendable rockets, he said.


John Carmack, founder of Armadillo Aerospace, said
the company
currently is focused on participating in the Rocket Racing League, the Lunar Lander Challenge, and working with NASA on methane propulsion, but
also is interested in flying suborbital missions for government agencies like the Air Force Research Laboratory.


“I’m sure that once we demonstrate the capability with a reusable, fast response vehicle, there will be a lot of customers,” Carmack said in a May 21 e-mail. “There is something of a chicken and the egg problem right now – we aren’t prioritizing high altitude development work because Spaceport America doesn’t have its final launch site license yet, but they aren’t in any huge hurry because they don’t have customers for it yet.”


The development
of a
space vehicle capable of flying
several times a day could change the way experimentation is conducted, according to Jim Muncy, XCOR’s director of
government relations.

Instead of flying an experimental payload one time, officials on the ground could make adjustments following a flight and then fly it again, he said in a May 22 interview.


The Air Force Research Laboratory
primarily is focusing on what the entrepreneurial firms are doing in the suborbital market right now, but is aware that the companies envision working on orbital vehicles as a long-term goal, Thieman said. Vehicles that could reach orbit and then safely return to Earth might make possible
missions like satellite retrieval or servicing that is prohibitively expensive to do today in most cases, he said.

In addition, the military ultimately could acquire its own variants of the vehicles to transport troops or cargo around the world, Thieman said.