Air Force Wants Its Rockets Back

A new prototype rocket could give the Air Force a round-trip ticket to space by 2013.

THE GIST

The Air Force is looking to develop a prototype reusable rocket that could fly itself back to the launch site.

Military satellites now ride into space on one-time-use expendable rockets.

A prototype is intended to test turn-around maneuvers and could fly in 2013.

The U.S. Air Force has a vision of the future that includes rockets that are not only reusable, but also able to fly back to Earth and land autonomously on a runway.

Currently, most military satellites are launched on one-time-use rockets, such as the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 vehicles. The best-known reusable boosters are flown on the space shuttles, but recycling them is no easy task. The solid-fuel rockets, which are jettisoned two minutes after liftoff, parachute down into the ocean where they are retrieved by ship. Getting them ready to fly again is labor-intensive and expensive.

Hoping to spark some technological innovation, the Air Force Research Laboratory is rolling out a $33-million pathfinder program to develop a prototype booster that can glide or fly itself back to the launch site. The first step of the program likely would be aimed at demonstrating a turn-around maneuver known as "rocket-back," whereby a rocket would use its own engines to fly back to the launch site and glide in for landing.

The first test flights are targeted for 2013.

NASA studied fly-back boosters more than a decade ago as part of a potential suite of upgrades to the space shuttles, but never pursued its development.

At least two companies hold patents for fly-back boosters: Lockheed Martin, which in 2008 quietly tested a sub-scale reusable fly-back rocket prototype and a firm known as Starcraft Boosters, founded by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin to develop low-cost alternative launchers.

While details of Lockheed's 2008 test flight were not released, another group did successfully test a sub-scale fly-back booster based on Aldrin's design.

"Our two big areas of concern were the separation of the vehicle so that it would come off the center stage in a way that wouldn't damage or impede the flight, and how to control it on the way down," Trevor Foster, project manager for the 2001-02 test program, told Discovery News.

Foster's team at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., flew a single-stage reusable launch vehicle three times -- once successfully -- and a two-stage vehicle once. "That one went really well," Foster said.

The vehicle was about 10 feet tall, with a six-foot wingspan.

"It seems to me that the only show-stopper would be something along the lines of what they're seeing with the space shuttle. Is it really reusable, or do they have to rebuild it every time?" Foster said. "As far as the technology itself, it didn't seem to be a show-stopper there."

The Air Force estimates a reusable, fly-back booster could cut launch costs by 50 percent. For the pilot project, officials envision a sub-scale vehicle, at least 15 feet long, that would be launched on a sounding rocket or off of an aircraft for three test flights to demonstrate different rocket-back maneuvers.

The Air Force expects to award up to three $1.5-million contracts for studies then select one team for a $28.5-million contract to build the prototype. An industry briefing on the project met last week.

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