A broad agreement signed July 26 by AirLaunch LLC and NASA Ames Research Center could lead to the start-up company conducting small satellite launches from the heart of California’s Silicon Valley.

The Kirkland, Wash.-based company is developing the air-launched QuickReach booster concept under a contract with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-U.S. Air Force Falcon Small Launch Vehicle Program. QuickReach is being designed to launch from an unmodified C-17A or other large cargo aircraft on 24-hour notice and deliver 450 kilograms of payload to low Earth orbit for less than $5 million.

AirLaunch intends to conduct the first QuickReach launches from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Test Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in mid-2008. But AirLaunch President Debra Facktor Lepore said Ames, with its military-grade airstrip and proximity to the Pacific Ocean, is a desirable West Coast location and would be a good place to demonstrate how the QuickReach booster can be deployed from virtually any place with a runway big enough to accommodate a C-17A or other large cargo aircraft.

The Ames Research Center, located in a densely populated urban area hugging the San Francisco Bay, can hardly be considered a launch range. But Facktor Lepore said that does not matter.

“The beauty of air launch is that we can fly/launch from anywhere. Our plan is to use Wallops’ advanced range technology and entrepreneurial range operations approach from wherever we launch,” Facktor Lepore said.

Facktor Lepore said Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., demonstrated the flexibility of air-launched boosters in 1997 when it deployed a Pegasus XL rocket from an L-1011 carrier aircraft that took off from Spain’s Gando Air Force Base in the Canary Islands. Wallops Flight Center helped with mission control, tracking and range safety support aided by mobile assets set up in Madrid. And in 2000, when Orbital Sciences launched a Pegasus from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, mission control was located thousands of kilometers away in Florida at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Ames Research Center Director Pete Worden, eager to make Ames synonymous with fast-paced, innovative space missions, is enthusiastic about the possibility of bringing a low-cost launcher to the center. But Worden said the memorandum of understanding he signed with AirLaunch here July 26 is only a framework for possible collaboration in space launch systems and payloads launched from aircraft.

“Should that mature, and they are interested of course in a number of locations on the East Coast and West Coast, but [AirLaunch] potentially basing some of their operations on the West Coast is a very exciting possibility,” Worden said.

Facktor Lepore said AirLaunch ‘s interest in Ames goes well beyond its airstrip. Ames has a variety of test facilities potentially of interest to AirLaunch, including wind tunnels and arc jet facilities capable of recreating the intense heat of atmospheric re-entry. And with Ames making a concerted effort to attract innovative and entrepreneurial companies, including Internet powerhouse, Google, to its campus, Facktor Lepore said AirLaunch is interested in being a part of the action — especially if some of these firms want to put payloads in space.

“All launchers want to fly as many payloads as possible and all payloads would much rather be in space than sitting on the ground somewhere,” she said. While AirLaunch has produced much more than paper studies and PowerPoint presentations over the last few years, the company still has a ways to go before it is ready to conduct its first launch.

The company is preparing for a program review this autumn that will determine whether DARPA and the Air Force will continue to fund development of the QuickReach booster. If AirLaunch makes it into the next phase, the company would expect to conduct its first test launch about 18 to 24 months later, or as soon as mid-2008.

Facktor Lepore declined to say how much money AirLaunch needs to get to its first launch.

AirLaunch has received about $30 million from the Pentagon since late 2003 and has used that money to refine the QuickReach design, produce a variety of hardware, conduct two rocket stage-separation ground tests and three drop tests.

The latest drop test was conducted from Edwards Air Force Base in California July 26, within hours of AirLaunch signing the agreement with Ames.

Facktor Lepore said the test set a new record for the heaviest object ever dropped from a C-17. During the test, AirLaunch and the Air Force deployed a full-scale QuickReach mockup out the back of a C-17 just recently returned to Washington’s McChord Air Force Base from supporting U.S. forces in the Middle East. The test article measured 20 meters, weighed over 32,650 kilograms and was deployed from an altitude of 9,750 meters.

Facktor Lepore said the drop test shows that a standard C-17 “can deliver troops and humanitarian aid one day and launch a satellite the next.”

AirLaunch’s Chief Engineer for Gravity Air Launch Marti Sarigul-Klijn said the launch vehicle extraction “worked exactly as predicted.”

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...