SAN FRANCISCO — In May 2011, when NASA began looking for commercial suborbital launch vehicles to carry research payloads, George Whittinghill already was working under a NASA small business contract to design rockets capable of sending small satellites into low Earth orbit. After reading the solicitation, Whittinghill, the president and chief technical officer of Whittinghill Aerospace, realized that one of the modules that made up the first stage of his proposed four-stage orbital vehicle would meet the space agency’s requirement for a reusable rocket capable of providing a few minutes in microgravity for science and technology experiments.

“It was wonderful, I jumped on that,” Whittinghill said.

Whittinghill Aerospace of Camarillo, Calif., was one of seven firms NASA selected in August to receive two-year contracts to integrate research payloads on suborbital rockets and launch them. The other firms selected to participate in the $10 million Flight Opportunities Program managed by NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., were: Armadillo Aerospace of Heath, Texas; Near Space Corp. of Tillamook, Ore.; and three companies based in Mojave, Calif., Masten Space Systems, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace.

The schedule and goals of the suborbital Flight Opportunities Program meshed perfectly with the work Whittinghill Aerospace already was performing under a NASA Small Business Innovative Research grant with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., to develop the Minimum Cost Launch Vehicle (MCLV) with rockets measuring 9 meters long and 61 centimeters in diameter. As part of the NASA Ames grant, Whittinghill Aerospace is required to demonstrate its technology in a full-scale firing of one of the first-stage modules.

Whittinghill Aerospace LLC At a Glance

Location: Camarillo, Calif.

Established: 2004 Mission: To offer dedicated rides into low Earth orbit for small satellites

Employees: Seven full- and part-time

Top Executive: George Whittinghill, president and chief technical officer

Whittinghill and his six-person team were able to continue development of the MCLV rockets to meet the goals of both programs. “It was perfect,” Whittinghill said. “I could not have designed a better, incremental approach to flight testing.”

Company engineers plan to conduct a full-scale test of the rocket motor in January or February at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Once tests confirm the engine works, launch vehicle assembly will begin.

Sometime next summer, Whittinghill Aerospace plans to conduct the test flights required to qualify the rocket to begin carrying payloads for the Flight Opportunities Program. “As soon as we land, I’m going to drive over to Dryden and say, ‘I’m ready,’” Whittinghill said.

Ultimately, Whittinghill would like to provide a dedicated launch for satellites weighing up to 22.7 kilograms for $2 million or less. The ultimate price will be determined by how often the rocket flies and negotiated range costs at one of the national launch ranges that support orbital flights. The suborbital work is “a steppingstone to the orbital path,” Whittinghill said.

“Right now, small satellites don’t have a cost-effective, dedicated ride,” Whittinghill said. Small satellites can piggyback on launches of larger payloads, “but if they want to travel to a specific orbital inclination or altitude, they have few options,” he added.

Whittinghill Aerospace’s orbital vehicle will be powered by a cluster of seven identical rockets fueled by a combination of nitrous oxide and rubber. Four of the rockets comprise the first stage. Two are used in the second stage and one in the third stage. The fourth stage is a small, solid rocket. The hybrid propellant, which Virgin Galactic also is using to power SpaceShipTwo, is less expensive and easier to handle than traditional liquid or solid rockets, Whittinghill said.

Whittinghill plans to carry at least three payloads on the first MCLV flight. He declined to discuss two of the payloads citing confidentiality agreements, but said the third payload is a wireless avionics experiment designed by Intelligent Automation Inc. of Rockville, Md. The goal of that experiment is to reduce the size, weight and complexity of launch vehicles by taking advantage of wireless communications technology prevalent in ground-base applications.

“Currently, the weight of wire harnesses, brackets, mounting hardware, avionics connectors and stage connect interfaces represent a significant portion of a typical launch vehicle,” Intelligent Automation said in a briefing on the program approved for release by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). “This research seeks to mature wireless communication among launch system avionics components including flight computers, navigation systems, actuators, sensors, etc. to achieve demonstrable improvements in the launch system by reducing its weight, development cost, operational cost, development risk and operational risk.”

DARPA is paying Intelligent Automation to develop the wireless avionics technology under a Small Business Innovative Research grant, Wendy Nicholas, Intelligent Automation’s lead electrical engineer, said in a Nov. 22 email.

Whittinghill, who studied aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s, has an extensive résumé of space industry experience. He spent time on Kwajalein Island, and in Huntington Beach, Calif., working on missile defense programs for McDonnell Douglas, now part of Boeing. He also worked at Northrop Grumman, NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Space Industries Inc. of Houston and American Rocket Co. of Camarillo.

That experience convinced him that the only way to reduce launch costs dramatically was to create a company capable of building all the major elements of a rocket in-house. “If I can control all the expensive pieces, including the propellant, avionics and integration, I can control cost and schedule,” he said. That is precisely what Whittinghill and his son Ian, an aerospace engineer who serves as the firm’s chief designer, are doing, Whittinghill said.

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...