— The most likely near-term options for Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) launches as the Air Force prepares to purchase a block of small rockets with its 2008 budget come from Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., and Space Exploration Technologies of El Segundo, Calif.
Orbital Sciences launched the first ORS payload – TacSat-2 – in December 2006 aboard its Minotaur-1 rocket, and plans to launch TacSat-3 aboard a Minotaur-1 in December 2007.
Ron Grabe, Orbital Sciences executive vice president and general manager for launch systems, said that the company demonstrated faster launch preparation processes during the TacSat-2 launch, and plans to do so again with TacSat-3.
While the company is not currently under contract to launch any further ORS payloads aboard its Minotaur rockets, it could demonstrate responsive preparations during launches of other military payloads, Grabe said. Military officials have expressed interest in addressing some responsive preparations issues with non-ORS payloads, but have not committed to doing so, he said.
The Minotaur rockets include components from decommissioned ICBMs. While Grabe acknowledged that these components are a finite resource, he said that sufficient numbers are available to build hundreds of Minotaurs.
Orbital built the two rockets for TacSat-2 and TacSat-3 for a total of $24 million. The company
likely could reduce that price somewhat if the Air Force bought a larger block of rockets, Grabe said.
Musk, founder and chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies, said that his company also planned to compete for the block of ORS launches. Musk said that his company could reduce its $7 million price tag for the Falcon 1 rocket for a block purchase if the launches came within 12 months of each other, and it could find efficiencies such as increasing its order quantities from suppliers.
his company plans to increase the price of Falcon 1 launches in 2009 as part of an effort to increase the rocket’s payload capacity. While the price tag will rise to $8.5 million, the cost increase will be proportionately less than the planned increase in payload mass and volume, he said.
While the final figures for the upgrade have not yet been determined, Musk said that payload mass and volume capacity will likely increase by 30 percent.
The Falcon 1 rocket was initially expected to conduct the first ORS launch with TacSat-1 in 2004. However, the launch date has slipped repeatedly, primarily due to efforts to iron out issues with the rocket, and the current target is October.
The Falcon 1 experienced difficulty with its second stage during a March demonstration launch where it was unable to reach orbit. Musk said that the issue was limited to a sloshing of fuel away from the sump, and baffles to address this issue have been designed and are being manufactured.
LLC is taking a more cautious path than originally planned as it develops a new satellite launcher that the Pentagon hopes will play a key role in placing small payloads in orbit on short notice in the future.
The first demonstration space launch will likely move from 2008 into 2009 as the company gathers additional data on key components for its QuickReach vehicle,
according to Debra FacktorLepore, president of the Kirkland, Wash.-based company.
AirLaunch won $17.8 million awarded in 2004
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contract to refine its QuickReach concept for a flight demonstration in 2008
The QuickReach system uses a rocket that is dropped from an unmodified Air Force C-17 or other large cargo aircraft.
The $17.8 million contract covered what DARPA referred to as phase 2B of the Falcon Small Launch Vehicle program, which is a joint effort between DARPA and the U.S. Air Force. That contract ran for one year, but the work under that phase took longer than expected, FacktorLepore said.
The company had anticipated signing a contract for phase 2C that would have taken it through the flight demonstration. Instead, phase 2C
likely will cover additional testing on the QuickReach propulsion systems, with an additional phase – 2D – covering the flight demonstration, FacktorLepore said. She declined to comment on the exact nature of the work and potential contract value while it is still under negotiation.
Conducting the additional testing may help balance the work on QuickReach between the risk typically tolerated by DARPA and the more conservative approach of services like the Air Force, FacktorLepore said.
recent accomplishments include conducting the longest test-fire to date with its second stage during a demonstration in April, FacktorLepore said. The test-fire, which lasted 191 seconds, is likely the longer firing to date of vapor-pressurized propellant, she said.
The company also conducted more than 40 drop-tests of the rocket from the C-17, using a release system that relies on gravity rather than rails and pallets to eject the rocket from the aircraft, she said. Those tests have caught the attention of other military officials
are interested in the possibility of dropping other types of payloads without the added weight of pallets, she said.
Other launch concepts that the Pentagon may be able to turn to in the future include the Sprite vehicle, which is being developed by
Microcosm Inc. of Hawthorne, Calif. Microcosm was one of the competitors that lost out to AirLaunch in the Falcon Small Launch Vehicle competition in 2004.
The Sprite rocket was featured in briefing charts used by Simon “Pete” Worden in 2003 when he was a brigadier general and in charge of transformation efforts at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. Worden cited the Sprite in briefings for
as an example of a potentially key enabling technology
for launching small satellites on short notice. Worden currently serves as director of NASA’s Ames Research Center.
While Microcosm was encouraged to develop a larger rocket called the Eagle during the Falcon Small Launch Vehicle competition that was about twice the size of the Sprite, the company has returned its focus to the Sprite.
Microcosm President James Wertz said company
they have successfully boosted the potential payload capacity of the Sprite from about 800 pounds (360
kilograms) to about 1,050 pounds (472.5
to low Earth orbit. At the same time the
potential cost of about $4.6 million, including range operations, has not gone up.
Wertz declined to comment on the level of internal research and development funds that Microcosm has invested in the Sprite vehicle since losing the Falcon Small Launch Vehicle competition. The company would likely need additional funding from the Pentagon to bring the vehicle to a level of readiness for a flight demonstration, he said.
If the military committed funding for a Sprite demonstration launch, the vehicle would likely be ready within about two years, Wertz said.