WASHINGTON — AirLaunch LLC expects to learn by year’s end whether the Pentagon will continue funding the development of the company’s QuickReach booster and keep the low-cost satellite launcher on track for an early 2009 test flight, a company official said.
The U.S. Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Air Force have given the Kirkland, Wash.-based company about $30 million since late 2003 to design and develop a booster capable of being launched on short notice from an unmodified C-17A or other large cargo aircraft and deliver 450 kilograms of payload to low Earth orbit for less than $5 million.
AirLaunch beat out several competitors by late 2005 to win the only vehicle development contract DARPA and the Air Force awarded under the second phase of the Falcon program.
DARPA and the Air Force, however, gave a separate award to El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies () to demonstrate the operational responsiveness of the company’s self-financed Falcon 1 rocket, which launched for the first time in March but caught fire and crashed about a minute after liftoff. DARPA is funding a second Falcon 1 demonstration flight slated for December or January.
With an important design review approaching, AirLaunch has stepped up the pace of its testing in the last couple of months, conducting a payload fairing separation test in early October at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore before going on to complete several different propulsion system tests in the space of two weeks at a subcontractor’s Mojave, Calif., test site.
DARPA and Air Force officials are headed out to Mojave the week of Nov. 13 to spend three days reviewing AirLaunch’s progress to date. The so-called incremental critical design review is intended to help Falcon program officials decide whether to continue funding the QuickReach booster’s development.
AirLaunch President Debra Facktor Lepore told Space News she anticipates a decision from DARPA and the Air Force by the end of the year. In the meantime, AirLaunch is pressing ahead with additional second-stage engine tests that will culminate with a 230-second burn — the length of time the engine would fire during an actual launch.
Facktor Lepore said the test will be the first time the QuickReach’s liquid-oxygen- and propane-fueled second-stage engine is tested vertically. All 32 of the engine tests the company has conducted to date have been with the engine on its side.
Assuming DARPA and the Air Force decide to continue funding AirLaunch, Facktor Lepore said the company would devote the next phase of development to additional engine testing, building an engineering model of the complete QuickReach booster, and generally getting ready for a first launch that would occur in late 2008 or early 2009.
AirLaunch has not disclosed what it expects to spend on QuickReach to get to that first launch, which would take place out of Wallops. Also still to be determined is what payload, if any, would be included on the QuickReach booster’s inaugural launch.
“No payload selection has been made but there is lots of interest,” Facktor Lepore said. “DARPA, the Air Force and AirLaunch will work together on the payloads selection, but that is something that will not happen until later in phase two.”
Wallops officials are eyeing the QuickReach debut flight as a good opportunity to make a dent in the backlog of tiny payloads that have been bumped from the space shuttle manifest in recent years as NASA focuses its energies on completing assembly of the international space station.
Bruce Underwood, chief of the Wallops’ Advanced Projects Office, said there have been discussions between NASA and DARPA about manifesting the Multiple-Payload Ejector on the inaugural QuickReach launch.
The Multiple-Payload Ejector, designed to fly atop a small rocket, can accommodate up to a 180-kilogram primary payload and a host of smaller payloads. Underwood said the system could carry up to six 45-kilogram secondary payloads and a dozen one-kilogram cubesats if the primary payload is limited to 90 kilograms.
Underwood said Wallops started work on the payload carrier in early 2005 with an eye toward using DARPA-Air Force Falcon-class rockets to address the dearth of flight opportunities for very small satellites and flight experiments. Wallops has built a prototype flight unit with the help of about $2 million in funding from NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, the NASA organization responsible for the space shuttle program and matching agency payloads with launch opportunities. Additional units could be built and flown, Underwood said, for about $1.5 million, excluding the cost of the host rocket.
When Wallops began developing the Multi-Payload Ejector, NASA had recently pledged to make a one-time $10 million investment in the Falcon Small Launch Vehicle Program. Earlier this year, however, NASA scaled back its investment in the program to roughly $3 million, largely in the form of Wallops support of AirLaunch’s program.
While Wallops officials still hope to manifest the carrier on the first QuickReach launch, they said the generic carrier is a good fit for other small launchers in development, including SpaceX’s Falcon 1 and Oklahoma City-based RocketPlane Kistler’s K-1.
DARPA, meanwhile, said what the QuickReach will carry on its first launch, assuming the project goes forward, remains an open question.
“Details for the next phase, including the launch and possible payloads, are still being formulated,” DARPA spokesman Jan Walker said in a Nov. 7 e-mail. “Although this certainly could include NASA participation, we have yet to finalize any plans.”