Watch This Space
Attempts by small space companies to win NASA contracts are as perennial as Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football.
- By Geoffrey Little
- Air & Space magazine, January 2006
(Page 2 of 7)
A week later, after tweaking the chute’s release mechanism, Sarigul-Klijn decides to watch the second test from the ground. This time it works flawlessly: After the release, the test rocket is suspended magically upright in the sky. On a real launch, the engines would then fire, and the t/Space rocket with its four-person crew capsule would blast off toward space.
If engineering were the only worry, the odds of that happening would be fair, maybe even good. But Gump, Hudson, and the rest of the t/Space team know that if they want to see their plans through, they have to fight other, perhaps tougher, battles: in Washington and on Wall Street. Ultimately they envision a self-sustaining commercial rocket business carrying freight and tourists into Earth orbit and beyond for a fraction of what today’s Deltas and Atlases cost. In the near term, though, they’ll be competing for crucial NASA contracts to deliver supplies—equipment, food, water, and possibly astronauts—to the International Space Station later in this decade. Whoever wins those contracts will have a head start on the rocket revolution. And whoever doesn’t may be out of the game.
The road to orbit is littered with big-talking startups that promised to shake up the launch business—if only NASA would sign on as a guaranteed customer. Each ended up disappointed or bankrupt when the agency balked, delayed, or changed its mind. This time NASA swears it will be different, and that it genuinely wants to nurture a commercial launch sector that can undersell even the Russians (who charge a low $67 million for a three-seat Soyuz flight to the station). Why? Because the government wants to save its money for bigger things.
“We want to get in the exploring business,” says Neil Woodward, an astronaut currently pulling duty at NASA’s Washington headquarters as deputy director for Constellation Systems, the developmental arm for the new moon-Mars exploration program. “Trying to get up to Earth orbit all the time distracts us from going on to the moon, which is what we really want to do.”
It was NASA, in fact, that bankrolled t/Space’s drop tests this year, under two separate $3 million development contracts, as part of its Concept Evaluation and Review Program aimed at sussing out non-traditional approaches to everything from launch to designing moon bases. For that kind of money, the agency usually gets only reports and viewgraphs—not flight tests. The contracting official overseeing t/Space was Michael Lembeck. “In order to get out of the theological and into the practical, they were going to have to actually do something,” he says. “We decided to let t/Space loose to give them some credibility.”
Lembeck, who flew in the chase plane himself and took pictures on the second drop test, called the Mojave demonstration “a good first step to a reliable air launch system.” Without picking favorites, Woodward agrees. “[T/Space] has done very good work for us, and it really behooves us to be able to take advantage of any capabilities that emerge out of that sector.”
Let the competition begin.
T/Space was kick-started into being by the NASA grants, almost over the objections of one of its founders. Gary Hudson was happily working at his latest company, AirLaunch LLC, which in 2003 had received development funds from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Air Force to develop faster, cheaper access to space for small military satellites. The Air Force also hoped that Hudson’s rocket, called QuickReach, could evolve into a hypersonic vehicle capable of delivering a 12,000-pound payload a distance of 9,000 miles in two hours.