Air-Launched Rocket Projects Ready to Soar

ALASA  - Artist's Concept Image Credit : Boeing

ALASA – Artist’s Concept
Image Credit : Boeing

The prospects for air-launched, lower cost access to space appear to be soaring higher all the time. On July 27th, a defense contracts notification website reported that Boeing has received a contract modification for its Experimental Spaceplane, XS-1 award. Managed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the XS-1 program is seeking to develop the capacity to launch payloads weighing up to 3,000 lbs. to LEO for under $5 million. The second goal is perhaps just as challenging, to fly 10 times in 10 days.

Boeing was one of three winners for the initial round of contracts, along with Northrop Grumman and Masten Space Systems. The first two are working on horizontally launched, reusable winged first stages, whereas Masten, sticking closer to its area of specialty, proposed a vertically launched, horizontally landing first stage called “Zephyr.”

One of the more interesting aspects of the competition is that each of the Phase I proposals featured a partnership between two teams. Boeing partnered with Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman with Virgin Galactic and Masten with XCOR. Awarded amounts were $4M, $4M and $3M respectively.

Now entering Phase IB, Boeing has scored a $6.587M follow-on contract to continue developing its proposal, with Northrop Grumman also receiving a similar amount. It was not immediately clear if Masten also received a follow-on contract, although speaking at the NewSpace 2015 conference in San Jose, California last month, Masten CEO Sean Mahoney told the audience that the company’s launch development work “may change the world, and because of that, it is worth doing.”

The XS-1 project is not the only launch project  DARPA is funding, it is also supporting the very small end of the market through its ALASA, or Airborne Launch Assist Space Access program. ALASA is geared towards developing the capacity to launch a 100 lb. payload to LEO for under $1 million with a 24 hour call-up capability. Following a three contestant Phase I, in March of 2014, Boeing was selected as the prime contractor for the Phase II award, which will see up to 12 orbital launches by 2017. Boeing’s ALASA system consists of two-stage “high energy” mono-propellant booster which will be carried to its release altitude of 40,000 ft under the belly of an F-15E aircraft.

Unlike traditional boosters, the ALASA rocket consists of aft mounted fuel tanks which feed four forward-mounted, outboard canted engines in an arrangement somewhat similar to that found on the SuperDraco powered SpaceX Dragon capsule.  In this case however, the first stage tank assembly can drop away while the four engines do double duty to power the second (or third, depending on your perspective) stage engines.

Meanwhile, at the entire other end of the spectrum, Paul Allen’s massive, twin-fuselage Stratoaunch aircraft which will be operated under the oversight of Vulcan Aerospace, is looking for a new booster to carry. First introduced in 2011 as part of a joint venture which would have seen the world’s largest airplane take flight carrying a resurrected version of the SpaceX Falcon 5 aircraft to an air-borne launch, StratoLaunch, which is based in Huntsville, Al. then announced that it was switching to a booster provided by Orbital Sciences after SpaceX backed out citing a desire to not interrupt its manufacturing process for the Falcon 9.

Earlier this year however, Vulcan Aerospace President Chuck Beames indicated that the now Orbital-ATK project, which would have resulted in a medium class Delta II sized booster, was being slowed down while the company looked at other options, particularly on the smaller end of the scale. Speaking at NewSpace 2015, Beames said a decision on an initial booster would be made sometime this fall, while the Stratolaunch aircraft itself is on track for a roll-out sometime next year.

These developments, along with the landing of the Virgin Galactic LauncherOne manufacturing facility plant at Long Beach, Ca. and continued progress by Generation Orbit, of Atlanta, Ga. all point to a burgeoning era air-launched access to space, which perhaps a long time coming, is set to arrive in a big way.


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