Space Vehicles Directorate’s Launch Vehicle Technology program evaluates innovative, low-cost, launch vehicle concepts to propel military space assets into orbit to support the warfighter

An office comprised of two personnel seeks to save the Air Force millions of dollars in lift off costs by demonstrating innovative launch vehicle concepts to perform the critical, initial portion of spaceflight.

Located at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Space Vehicles Directorate’s Launch Vehicle Technology (LVT) program focuses on advancing multiple methods of low-cost rocket design, development, and production. In addition, the project investigates streamlining mobilization and launch procedures to provide greater launch responsiveness at no loss in reliability.

“Our program’s primary focus is developing low cost, responsive launch vehicle technologies,” said Capt. Aaron Simons, Launch Vehicle Technology program manager, Space Vehicles Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory. “Low-cost, responsive rockets will provide the warfighter greater access to space — the ultimate high ground.”

Expenditures associated with a single, standard launch can cost up to hundreds of millions of dollars. Expenditures associated with small launch vehicles typically top $20 million, but like the Bob Dylan song The Times They Are A-Changin, the military space industry’s pendulum has swung towards developing smaller, cheaper, and more responsive launch systems, with a projected cost of about one third of today’s lift off price tag. AFRL proactively prepared for this shift in thinking over 10 years ago by initiating the LVT program.

Building a launch vehicle at a fraction of the cost served as the project’s original vision, and the commitment to achieving it remains firm. The LVT team has fueled many efforts leading toward simpler, lower-cost rockets. Over a decade ago, the LVT project initiated Microcosm’s ScorpiusĀ® minimum cost design, small launch vehicle program. This and other technology efforts have resulted in reduced-cost propellants such as liquid oxygen/methane and liquid oxygen/liquid natural gas; safer propellants including hybrid rockets (solid fuel/liquid or gaseous oxidizer); and lighter, cheaper systems, subsystems, and components such as all composite ablative thrust chambers, aluminum and castable injectors, as well as composite propellant tanks. The LVT program has focused on small launch vehicles for two significant reasons. First, satellites are becoming smaller, lighter, and cheaper, and with greater capabilities than ever before. Second, smaller launch vehicle systems can be produced at lower development costs.

Currently, the LVT team is working with three separate companies to assess economical lift off technologies: Wickman Spacecraft & Propulsion Co., Casper, Wyo.; Microcosm Inc., El Segundo, Calif.; and KT Engineering (KTE), Huntsville, Ala.

Almost one year ago, the Air Force selected Wickman Spacecraft & Propulsion Co. for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program Phase I award, which provides federal monies for an American-owned, independently-operated, for-profit venture comprised of 500 employees or less, for research into the value of the specific technology for a 12-month period. The SBIR program also consists of two additional steps. In Phase II, further funding is awarded for the technology’s development, and during Phase III, government financing ceases with the commercialization of the new apparatus. At this final point in the SBIR process, the enterprise underwrites its project’s expenses.

Focusing on an innovative, cost-effective propulsion concept, the Wyoming-based business has tested, for the LVT program, a solid rocket motor concept with two unique characteristics: a low-cost, containerized phase stabilized ammonium nitrate (PSAN) solid propellant, which provides moderate performance at much greater safety; and an altitude compensating nozzle with individually controlled nozzle throats, which may be throttled for thrust and thrust vector control.

For the past nine years, Microcosm Inc. has supported the LVT team’s quest for low-cost, lift off technology with their ScorpiusĀ® project. Subsidized through a SBIR Phase II award, the California company has successfully completed two separate launches of suborbital vehicles from White Sands Missile Range, N.M., employing the ScorpiusĀ® structure. The first involved the SR-S, an 18-inch in diameter rocket powered by a single 5,000-pound thrust engine, in January 1999, and the second featured the SR-XM-1, a 42-inch in width rocket consisting of two 5,000-pound thrust engines in March 2001.

A third, the SR-M, comprised by a single engine, capable of 20,000 pounds of thrust, is anticipated to also be launched from White Sands Missile Range in early 2007. The SR-M will be essentially a single pod of a multi-pod design (a core with six surrounding pods) called Sprite, which will be capable of placing small satellites in orbit.

With a low cost launch concept different than the other two entities, KTE has embarked on progressive approaches to spacecraft design to reduce lift off expenses. Their concept is to build a launch vehicle using commercial industry, commercial manufacturing, and commercial business practices in economies of scale, rather than aerospace industry procedures. This process promises to dramatically reduce the cost of manufacturing. Assisted by SBIR Phase II funding during the last three years, the LVT’s third designer for economical launches has collaborated on their experiments with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

“The launch vehicle is the workhorse in getting satellites into space.” said Capt. Simons. “By making rockets smaller, cheaper, and more responsive, the Air Force will free up dollars that could be used to better support the warfighter.”

Sounds like an idea whose time is soon to be launched courtesy of the LVT program.

IMAGE CAPTION: [ (21KB)] SR-XM-1 lift offs from White Sands Missile Range in March 2001. The low-cost launch vehicle, part of Microcosm Inc.’s Scorpius(R) project, consisted of a 42-inch in width rocket with two 5,000-pound thrust engines. (U.S. Air Force photo)