Watch This Space

Attempts by small space companies to win NASA contracts are as perennial as Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football.

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IN THE PRE-DAWN DARKNESS of California’s Mojave Spaceport, a group of employees from Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites assembles in a hangar around the twin-engine Proteus aircraft, a Rutan design. Strapped to its belly, held by an old bomb rack from an F-4 fighter, is a rocket booster without engines—a drop test article that 90 days earlier was just an idea in an e-mail.

In a few hours the Proteus will release the first of three such test articles to demonstrate a critical step in a new method of air launch. If successful, the dummy rocket will detach cleanly, be pulled upright by a small drogue chute as if to fire, then plummet 25,000 feet and smash into a dry lake bed. “We do wacky things every day,” says Scaled project manager Bob Morgan, who’s aware that dropping large objects from the sky is unusual even in a startup rocket business.

The fast-moving company behind today’s test is actually a consortium of half a dozen smaller companies, including Scaled. T/Space, short for Transformational Space Corporation, was created in 2004 by entrepreneurs Gary Hudson and David Gump, who hope, as their consortium’s name implies, to revolutionize human spaceflight by dramatically reducing its cost. With luck and NASA’s help, they might just do it. But on this May morning, all attention is on the drop test.

The technique to be evaluated today was masterminded by Hudson’s lead flight test engineer, Marti Sarigul-Klijn, a retired Navy test pilot and missile veteran. Sarigul-Klijn built the t/LAD (Trapeze-Lanyard Air Drop) mechanism for today’s test from parts he found in a hardware store, an aircraft boneyard, and online. Scaled test pilot Mike Mel-vill contributed an old bomb rack he scavenged off an F-4 Phantom years earlier. That would do nicely for the trapeze to swing the dummy spaceship down from the Proteus. Then they needed a lanyard to drop it from the trapeze. A car tow strap had just the right load-bearing capacity. Next, a braking mechanism to stop the strap: An off-the-shelf brake from a Honda motorcycle fit the bill. A small wireless modem and a controlling chip with just 10 seconds of memory would supply the commands and broadcast the drop data.

Finally they needed a release mechanism. Existing air-launched rockets like the Orbital Sciences Pegasus use explosive bolts, but Morgan didn’t want to attach pyrotechnics to the hull of Scaled’s one and only Proteus. So the team developed a pneumatic piston fired by a scuba bottle. For the last few weeks they’d done hundreds of test releases in the hangar, dropping the quarter-scale booster the short distance from the airplane’s underside onto a stack of corrugated cardboard.

Their caution was understandable. One of Morgan’s employees had brought in a military video of bomb release bloopers, which the crew had bravely watched. It showed bombs flying parallel to airplanes after their release, or bumping into the mothership’s fuselage like dangerous suckling pigs, or flying up through wings and rotors.

Before dawn the Proteus, with the dummy rocket almost grazing the tarmac, rolls out of the hangar, taxis, and lifts off quickly toward the test area, half an hour’s flight away. For its full-size rocket, t/Space hopes to commission Rutan’s company to build a larger carrier called the VLA, or Very Large Aircraft, with a gross weight of nearly a million pounds and a payload capability of 150 tons. The wingspan would be 320 feet.

Today, though, it’s the much smaller Proteus. After the aircraft circles the lake bed, the flight engineer starts a countdown. The airplane flies out level, the bomb rack swings down, the chute deploys, the strap snaps out nine feet to pitch up the nose of the rocket, and the motorcycle brake squeezes the strap, pulling the rocket up into the correct position. A small drogue chute deploys next, which pulls it out farther from the airplane. After a heartbeat, the dummy booster is released. Normally the chute’s riser would be burned off, but on this first engineless test, they stay attached a hair too long. The booster noses down toward Earth rather than up toward space, and hurtles to the desert floor. For Sarigul-Klijn, watching from a chase plane, it’s an upsetting moment.

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.

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