A New Age of Low Cost Launch?

Once designed and tested, the vehicle will also set the parameters for operational runways after development, but there are several possibilities (almost any field that can handle a B-52 would work), and the company has already reportedly been in discussions with Kennedy Space Center to use the Shuttle runway.

What are the advantages of air launch over a fixed launch pad? There are at least two.

First, the performance of a given launch vehicle is increased, not only because it gets a slight “head start” into orbit by leaving from altitude and with some ground speed, but because the rocket nozzles can be optimized for space, since it doesn’t have to operate at sea level. This allows a significant improvement in fuel efficiency.

But more important is the increase in operational flexibility. A fixed launch pad can’t avoid weather. It is also restricted in launch azimuth (the direction that the launch takes) because of geographical overflight constraints. Moreover, an aerial launch platform can fly to the precise location needed to allow an injection into an orbital plane at just the right place and time to allow a rendezvous and docking with an orbiting object (such as the International Space Station, or a tourist hotel) within a few hours, rather than a day or two, which is typical for a launch from a more constrained pad.

This would be a huge benefit for current space travelers whose nominal, standard experience is worse than being tortured by an airline with hours on the tarmac, with no toilet facilities whatsoever. For people who want to get quickly to their destination, rather than sitting in a cramped capsule for days, as is currently the case on Soyuz, and would be the case for the SpaceX Dragon or Boeing CST or other commercial fixed-pad providers, it would dramatically open up the market.

There are some interesting regulatory issues that weren’t addressed in the press conference. Orbital operates its Stargazer L-1011 under a standard FAA aviation certification and license, though it also has to get a launch license for the Pegasus from the FAA’s space office, FAA-AST. It’s likely that the carrier aircraft for this new venture will as well. The cost estimate provided was about an order of magnitude above what Mr. Allen spent on winning the X-Prize with Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, which has been reported to be about thirty million dollars. That means it will be at least three hundred million, which is still far shy of the billions that traditional NASA/Air-Force cost models would generate for such a project.

But it’s unclear whether this includes the cost of FAA certification. Years ago, Burt built a prototype of a very small business jet for a couple million dollars. The estimate to get it certified for commercial use by the FAA aviation branch was a couple hundred million dollars. The difference in this case won’t be as bad, at least in terms of the ratio, but it could still add hundreds of millions in cost. On the other hand, there may be markets for the largest aircraft in the world other than as a launch carrier, so the cost of certification may be a good investment. Regardless, given that the project has an investor with very deep pockets and a clear commitment to it, we’re in for an interesting decade.