S3 plans to launch SOAR from an Airbus A300 jet. Credit: S3 artist's concept

Altitude Slickness

SAN FRANCISCO — Pascal Jaussi, a former Swiss air force pilot and flight test engineer, began working on a project to develop a reusable suborbital shuttle in 2005 while studying mechanical engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne’s Swiss Space Center. The end of that project in 2009 marked the beginning of Jaussi’s own campaign to build a multinational team, devise a business plan and attract private investors for Swiss Space Systems (S3).

“I started analyzing which existing aerospace technologies could be used for the project and approached the companies which developed them to become our industrial partners,” Jaussi said by email. “This was not an easy task and it took me three years to start S3 as a company with a strong network of international partners.”

Pascal Jaussi. Credit: S3 photo
Pascal Jaussi. Credit: S3 photo

S3 and its partners are preparing to roll out the first phase of their three-step business plan with microgravity aircraft flights scheduled to begin during the second half of this year, followed by small-satellite launches in 2018 and suborbital passenger flights sometime after 2020.

The suborbital passenger flights will rely on the same shuttle used to launch small satellites.

“Instead of a third stage in the cargo bay, we implement a pressurized module we are developing with Thales Alenia Space,” Jaussi said. “As we will have covered the development costs of the shuttle with small satellites launches, the ticket price for the passengers will only have to cover the costs related to the shuttle modification and certification.”

S3’s strategy revolves around the Sub Orbital Aircraft Reusable (SOAR) system, a shuttle that company engineers are developing at the firm’s research facility in Payerne, Switzerland. The SOAR design evolved from existing programs, including Hermes, a spaceplane designed and developed in the 1970s and 1980s by the French space agency, CNES, and the European Space Agency.

S3 plans to launch SOAR from an Airbus A300 jet. Once SOAR reaches an altitude of approximately 80 kilometers, it will launch an expendable third stage designed to travel into low Earth orbit to release small satellites with a total weight of 250 kilograms, S3 spokesman Grégoire Loretan said.

“We are in the last year of our research and development program,” Loretan said. The firm plans to conduct flight tests with a reduced scale SOAR mockup in northeastern Ontario, Canada this spring. Drop testing and a second round of wind tunnel testing also are scheduled for 2015.

[spacenews-ad]In 2016 and 2017, S3 plans to focus on assembly, integration and ground testing of its small-satellite launcher. S3 plans to conduct a flight test of that launch vehicle in 2017 to prepare for its first commercial launch in 2018, Loretan said.

While S3 is leading SOAR’s research and development, it is benefiting from the expertise of international partners, Loretan said, including France’s Dassault Aviation; Belgium’s Sonaca, Space Applications Services and Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics; Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy; Spaceport Malaysia; Space Florida; Spaceport Colorado; Russia’s Kuznetsov United Engine Corp.; England’s Meggitt PLC; and Spain’s Aernnova, Elecnor Deimos and Sener.

“We think being Swiss was a big asset,” Loretan said. “We were able to attract partners from all over the world.” Although Switzerland is not known as an aerospace power, the country’s reputation for neutrality, confidentiality and information security helped S3 build a strong team, he said.

Swiss Space Systems (S3) at a Glance

Established: 2012

Location: Payerne, Switzerland

Employees: 60

Top Official: Pascal Jaussi, chief executive and founder

Mission: To provide space access, especially for scientific investigations and in-orbit deliveries requiring rapid and recurring access at a lower cost.

Switzerland is known for its watchmakers. One of those firms, Breitling SA, is S3’s primary sponsor. Loretan declined to say how much money Breitling or S3’s industrial partners were investing in the venture. He did say, however, that S3 plans to spend 250 million Swiss francs ($287.9 million) to cover all costs up to the first small satellite launch.

S3’s launch vehicle is designed to serve the burgeoning small-satellite market, including the many U.S. companies devising ways to use off-the-shelf technology to reduce the size and cost of spacecraft. “Our launch vehicle is optimized for small-satellite customers,” said Robert Feierbach, head of S3 USA Holdings Inc.

An S3 launch vehicle could, for example, send into orbit a satellite with an optical sensor weighing 150 to 200 kilograms in addition to 20 to 25 cubesats destined for a constellation. The list price for an S3 launch, which would carry small satellites into sun-synchronous low Earth orbit at an altitude of 700 kilometers or less, is 10 million Swiss francs, Feierbach said.

As S3 completes development of its small-satellite launch vehicle, company officials are preparing to begin offering flights to give customers the experience of weightlessness. S3 plans to use its A300 carrier aircraft to begin offering parabolic flights from Switzerland in the second half of 2015. During a typical two-hour flight consisting of approximately 15 parabolic maneuvers, passengers will experience about 22-25 seconds of weightlessness with each maneuver, Feierbach said.

Later this year, S3 also plans to begin offering microgravity flights from the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. S3’s A300 currently is being modified for those flights and the firm plans to obtain the required Federal Aviation Administration license to conduct them. S3 also plans to offer microgravity flights from the San Francisco Bay Area, Feierbach said.

The parabolic flights are designed to help S3 employees gain experience operating its wide-body Airbus carrier jet, and the parabolic missions will generate revenue for the company, Feierbach said.

S3’s microgravity flights also are designed “to give the general public a small taste of what you need to be an astronaut since our vision is ‘Space for All,’” Loretan said. “We want to democratize access to space. This is the first step before satellite launches and manned flights.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...