- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — There will be no trophy, no fancy dinner, no $10 million check to the company that successfully meets the unprecedented challenge laid out by two military organizations seeking to shatter rocket-launch costs.However, the winner — assuming there is one — could have even more of an effect on 21st-century space vehicles than SpaceShipOne, the winner of the Ansari X Prize. For now, Virgin Galactic and other aspiring space-tourism operators need not worry. The launch-vehicle component of the Falcon program does not address passenger transport.

Rather, the aim of the program — co-sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Air Force — is to launch a relatively small, 1,000-pound satellite into an orbit 115 miles above Earth.

There is a catch, of course, a condition that contains ramifications for companies developing ships for space tourists, as well as for firms building and flying space-cargo carriers. The military wants to see the deed done for no more than $5 million per launch, not including payload and payload-integration costs. In comparison, an Orbital Sciences Corp. air-launched Pegasus booster, which flies similarly sized payloads into orbit, costs $18 million to $22 million.

In addition, DARPA and the Air Force do not want the launch to take months or even weeks to come together. The Falcon project’s ultimate goal is to demonstrate that a vehicle can be launched with just a 24-hour notice.

The program began last year with DARPA’s award of several six-month launch-vehicle study contracts, ranging from $350,000 to $540,000, to nine firms: AirLaunch LLC of Reno, Nev.; Andrews Space Inc. of Seattle; Exquadrum Inc. of Victorville, Calif.; KT Engineering of Huntsville, Ala.; Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ Michoud Operations in New Orleans; Microcosm Inc. of El Segundo, Calif.; Orbital Sciences Corp. of Northern Virginia; Schafer Corp. of Chelmsford, Mass., and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, also of El Segundo.

In September, AirLaunch, Lockheed Martin, Microcosm and SpaceX won follow-on contracts, each worth $8 million to $11.7 million, for preliminary vehicle design and risk-reduction demonstrations. Those second-phase efforts will last only 36 months, but this year DARPA will select one or two of the proposals for continued funding, with the goal of a demonstration launch by 2007 to validate vehicle performance.

SpaceX is the notable exception. It is expected to debut its rocket, also named Falcon, this year, and DARPA’s contract with SpaceX calls for an actual demonstration launch, not just design work.

“Their goal is to demonstrate responsiveness,” DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker said. “They have to show that they can turn around and do the launch in 48 hours, although the ultimate program goal is to do it in 24 hours.”

“Each contractor will employ a slightly different approach,” Miss Walker added. “Each test and demonstration is customized to what they are doing.”

DARPA will be able to choose among a broad array of technologies and systems. SpaceX is building a two-stage, liquid-fueled reusable booster that also is the model for the firm’s larger Falcon 5 launcher. Company President Elon Musk — creator of the highly successful Internet business PayPal and other ventures — plans to use his rockets eventually to launch people into space. In working on the DARPA contract, Mr. Musk will attempt to undercut his already undermarket $6 million launch fee.

AirLaunch, as its name implies, is designing a booster to be dropped from an aircraft before it blasts off toward space, a configuration similar to the Pegasus and to SpaceShipOne, which was designed by Burt Rutan’s firm, Scaled Composites, in Mojave, Calif. Called QuickReach, the rocket is a two-stage, liquid-fueled booster, like SpaceX’s Falcon.

AirLaunch actually is a team of companies that banded specifically for the DARPA program. Major participants include launch-vehicle prime contractor Space Vector Corp. of Chatsworth, Calif.; avionics and software provider Universal Space Lines LLC of Newport Beach, Calif.; propulsion technologies by HMX Inc. of Reno, Nev., and payload processing and mission integration by Delta Velocity Corp. of Purcellville, Va., which was founded by Joe Padavano, Orbital Sciences’ former Taurus program manager.

Microcosm, which has flown two suborbital rockets, is working on the Scorpius family of launch vehicles, designed to handle a wide range of payloads. The liquid-fueled boosters are launched from a 30-foot-long mobile rail, called the Transporter-Erector-Launcher. During one of its sounding-rocket tests, Microcosm was able to launch eight hours after arriving at its launch site in White Sands, N.M.

One Goliath lurks among the budding space entrepreneurs: Lockheed Martin, which for the Falcon program is experimenting with hybrid motors. Propellants in a hybrid rocket typically consist of a rubbery solid fuel and a liquid oxidizer.

The technology was pioneered in the late 1980s by American Rocket Co. of Ventura, Calif., which tested several hybrid designs. Last year, SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed passenger spaceship, used hybrid rockets.

“If you’re going to play in this game, you’re going to have to bring something new to the table,” said Dan Ferrari, Lockheed’s business-development director. He said the company plans to keep launch costs low by mass-producing about 200 rockets per year. In January, the firm successfully test-fired its first hybrid motor developed under the Falcon program.

Lockheed’s aeronautics division in Palmdale, Calif., holds another piece of the Falcon pie: a contract to design an autonomous aircraft that can take off from a conventional military runway and strike a target more than 10,000 miles away in less than two hours. DARPA wants the vehicle to be able to carry a 12,000-pound payload, which could include cruise missiles, small bombs and/or other aerial vehicles.

Though it holds both booster and vehicle-design contracts, Lockheed has no plans to parlay its expertise into a commercial passenger system, Mr. Ferrari said.

“I think there’s a lot more technology that needs to be developed, as well as the whole liability environment,” he said. “Also, we need to understand the business, to know what the true market is for commercial passengers going to space. We don’t know what that is.”

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