USA’s Falcon Program for Fast, Small Space Launches Evolving
On April 19, 2005, DID reported on a Headquarters Space and Missile Systems Center contract for SpaceX’s Falcon I system, under a Responsive Small Spacelift Launch Vehicles program. Indeed, SpaceX’s Falcon I system has 3 scheduled launches between now and Q1 2006 – 2 for the US (DARPA, NRL) and 1 for Malaysia. We’ve also reported on another program named FALCON, and we’ll explain both the difference and the connections.
Meanwhile, the competition for the overall USAF/DARPA Small Launch Vehicle program has narrowed to three companies: Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), AirLaunch LLC, and Lockheed Martin Corp. A fourth Phase 2 competitor, Microcosm of El Segundo, CA, recently broke up its subcontractor team, terminated arrangements with consultants working on the Falcon effort, and laid off about 15 of its 50 employees based on its assumption that it has lost out in the competition. Next phase awards are expected in the near future, and the program continues to evolve in other ways. At present…
The U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are pursuing the development of the Small Launch Vehicle with the goal of launching payloads weighing up to 450 kilograms for no more than $5 million per launch, excluding payload integration costs.
Industry sources informed C4SI Journal that DARPA would soon be negotiating with AirLaunch LLC to begin negotiations for a development contract, expected to be worth on the order of $40 million. DARPA said in September 2004 that the development phase of the program would culminate in 2007 with the launch of a small satellite. Gary Hudson, president of AirLaunch, declined to comment, “other than to say we are optimistic.”
AirLaunch LLC’s QuickReach technology is certainly the most unique of the 3 remaining launch technology competitors.
The QuickReach is a two-stage liquid fuel rocket that is carried to its launch point at 25-30 thousand feet in the cargo bay of an aircraft such as an Air Force C-17 or a privately chartered Antonov 124. This simplifies operations by removing issues like designing for performance at sea level air pressure, coordination with other users of a fixed range, weather constraints, postponements due to ships entering launch-related ocean zones, and delays waiting for specific launch windows. Its gravity-based launch system allows launches from unmodified aircraft and preserves airspeed and altitude energy, with a chute that later deploys in order to right the missile in time for ignition. This simplicity also makes scaling easier by requiring few changes in basic components; payloads of up to 10,000 pounds are contemplated for future designs.
SpaceX, meanwhile, was still waiting to hear from DARPA, adding that a contract worth about $20 million could help the company reduce the call-up time for its rocket from about two weeks to less than 24 hours to support urgent military needs. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said in an interview that he expects to hear shortly about a launch contract through the Falcon effort for 2007.
Musk also said on August 25, 2005 that Lockheed Martin looked to have been knocked out of the running. C4SI Journal reports that other sources dispute this, however, and claims that the USAF hopes to find a way to continue funding Lockheed Martin’s rocket, even if that means using money from outside the Falcon program. The Air Force, whose approach is more risk averse than DARPA’s, wants to keep its options open for launching small payloads on short notice and is less sure that they can rely on AirLaunch’s QuickReach technology at this stage.
Robert Conger, Microcosm’s executive vice president, told C4SI Journal that his company had not received a final answer from DARPA. However, he expressed frustration that the Falcon Small Launch Vehicle program had started with a focus on rockets that could launch small satellites on short notice, but later seemed to evolve into a pursuit of a platform primarily to launch Common Aero Vehicles/ Hypersonic Technology Vehicles. DID covered Lockheed-Martin’s Phase IIB contract back in March.
DARPA’s FALCON program (Force Application and Launch from Continental US) envisions the Common Aero Vehicles as non-powered platforms capable of striking targets around the world soon after launch from the United States. The Common Aero Vehicles present very different challenges for a launcher than satellites, Conger said. A launcher for Common Aero Vehicles would take a suborbital path, and would carry a far more robust payload that is capable of withstanding re-entry conditions. In comparison, a small satellite launcher must be capable of handling a far more delicate payload and placing it into orbit.
“In order to implement this flight test program in an affordable manner, Falcon will develop a low cost, responsive Small Launch Vehicle (SLV) that can be launched for $5M or less. In addition to hypersonic technology vehicles (HTV) sub-orbital launches, the SLV will be capable of launching small satellites into sun-synchronous orbits and will provide the nation a new, small payload access to space capability. Thus, the Falcon program addresses many high priority mission areas and applications such as global presence and space lift. DARPA established an MOA with NASA for this program in October 2004. Falcon capabilities are planned for transition to the Air Force at the conclusion of Phase III, which is anticipated to be completed by FY 2010.”
- DID (June 23/06) – AirLaunch’s FALCON Entry Succeeds in 2nd Drop from C-17
- DID (Nov 8/05) – AirLaunch LLC Wins Falcon Phase 2B Contract
- DID (Oct 7/05) – AirLaunch LLC Performs QuickReach Test
- AIAA (May 21/05) – Trade Studies for Air Launching a Small Launch Vehicle From a Cargo Aircraft [PDF]. Very well done, excellent overviews of alternatives. As might be expected from an industry association paper, a number of organizations besides Airlaunch LLC were involved.
- C4ISR Journal (Aug 29/05) – Field Narrows for DARPA’s Falcon Program
- DID (April 19/05) – $100M for Small Spacelift Vehicles and Support
- DID (March 17/05) – Hypersonic Rocket-Plane Program Inches Along