The Falcon 1 rocket developed by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. () of El Segundo, Calif., is the first of what industry and government officials hope will be a host of new vehicles and systems providing low-cost flight opportunities for experiments and other small payloads.
Affordable access to space has been a longstanding problem for university researchers and others on tight budgets, said Charles Swenson, director of the Center for Space Engineering at Utah State University in Logan.
“There have always been few opportunities to launch small payloads,” Swenson said in a phone interview. “Over the last year or two, those opportunities have shrunk even more because we can no longer make use of the shuttle for launching small payloads.”
With no program in the United States to regularly provide secondary flight opportunities for low-cost payloads, Swenson said, SpaceX and other such ventures may be the only near-term hope. SpaceX’s Falcon 1 “and other low-cost launchers [in development] appear to be the only way to get small payloads into orbit. It is the only credible outlook on the horizon,” he said.
After numerous delays, the Falcon 1, which SpaceX President and founder Elon Musk said will cost $5.9 million per launch, plus range fees, is scheduled to debut no earlier than Sept. 30 from SpaceX’s launch complex on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The payload is an experimental satellite funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and built by students at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Musk said in an interview that the Falcon 1’s first stage shipped out Aug. 2 on a 28-day journey by sea to the atoll. The rocket’s second stage, he said, is to be delivered to Kwajalein aboard a C-17 cargo aircraft in late August.
For the last decade or so, the primary launch option for small U.S. government-sponsored satellites has been the air-launched Pegasus rocket. Built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., the Pegasus launches small satellites at prices starting above $15 million.
That price tag puts the Pegasus out of reach for small companies like SpaceDev of Poway, Calif.
“It doesn’t make sense to make a $5 million or $10 million satellite and pay nearly $20 million to get it launched,” said Jim Benson, founding chairman and chief executive officer of SpaceDev.
SpaceDev is working on its own low-cost rocket, dubbed Streaker, with funding help from the Pentagon. Benson says his company is about three years and $25 million away from completing development of the vehicle.
“We have all the pieces of the puzzle under contract, it’s just going to take a relatively small amount of time to get everything together and start launching,” Benson said. “We want to unleash the demand for small satellites that we hope to build.”
To help accomplish this, Benson said SpaceDev is considering buying multiple Falcon 1 rockets from potential competitor SpaceX. “It is more important to get these things launched. It is important that [the United States] have a small expendable launch vehicle.”
NASA, meanwhile, is designing hardware that would enable secondary payloads to launch aboard vehicles like the Streaker whose development is being subsidized by the Pentagon. The Multiple Payload Ejector, being developed at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, would deliver up to six small payloads to orbit, said Gary Letchworth, technical manager for the advanced projects office at Wallops.
“We are trying to build a capability that can service the smaller side of the market that has been left out in the cold,” Letchworth said. He said NASA hopes to have the ejector built and tested by the spring of 2006.
Swenson said that while prospects for small payload flight opportunities are looking up, the future would be brighter if the U.S. government would implement a program to regularly include secondary payloads on its operational launches.
The U.S. Air Force has designed hardware to accommodate secondary payloads on its workhorse rockets, but the effort has gained little momentum because satellite managers are reluctant to share their rides to space, Swenson said. “The risk is not as great as it is perceived to be,” he said. “Personally, I think nothing ventured, nothing gained.”