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Experimenters Have New Launch Options

29 August 2003

A group of Florida government organizations devoted to promoting the state’s space industry have created a program to provide inexpensive rocket flights for student-built payloads.

At the same time a California company hopes to sell missions to customers using the same sounding rockets with an improved upper stage.

The Florida Space Authority, working with the Florida Space Institute and Brevard County Community College has obtained access to about 200 surplus military sounding rockets known as Super-Lokis and the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., used to launch them.

The nearly 4-meter long rockets use 17 kilograms of ammonium percolate to loft payloads to an altitude of about 112 kilometers, said Peter Gunn, director of safety and security for the Florida Space Authority. The rockets, renamed Shadow, are being marketed commercially by Lunar Rocket & Rover Co. Inc. of Los Alamitos, Calif.

The Florida Space Authority now owns the launch pad, and three launches were conducted between Aug. 8 and Aug. 12 to test the rockets and Launch Complex 47, which has not been used since 1998, Gunn said. The Florida Space Institute and the community college provide the staffing for launch operations.

The first two launches, which took place Aug. 8, were used to demonstrate that the rockets, which have been on the shelf for nearly 10 years, were serviceable and that the range was operational after several years of inactivity, Gunn said. The first launch of an operational payload occurred Aug. 12, when a sounding rocket lofted a miniature camera designed by university students from Ireland, he said.

“People like to see success, and now that we have launched three successfully, we hope to make the program grow a little bit,” said Robert Crabbs, assistant director of the Florida Space Institute. The organizations hope to attract student groups with small payload experiments and ones that want to do flight qualification testing for payloads destined for orbit, he said.

The test launches also are being used to determine the exact price the Florida organizations will charge for a mission, Crabbs said. The organizations have set $25,000 per launch as the ceiling for a mission, which would cover launch operations and security, but they hope the actual price will end up being much lower.

“That was a guess, and we know it was too high,” Crabbs said. “We hope that after three launches we can determine the exact costs, which we hope will be much lower than $25,000. A lot of students would like to fly payloads, and if we can get a handle on range costs, we believe we can launch 10 to 20 rockets per year.”

The Florida government consortiums are non-profit organizations that will offer the launches for the cost of range operations, but Lunar Rocket is trying to develop a commercial business, Crabbs said.

Because the existing upper stages on the sounding rockets can only carry payloads weighing about half a kilogram, Lunar Rocket is designing a new upper stage that can carry heavier and larger payloads, Robert Kleinberger, president and chief executive officer of Lunar Rocket, said.

Lunar Rocket is planning a launch by the end of September to test a new 50-millimeter wide upper stage that duplicates the flight characteristics of the existing aluminum upper stage but is made of composite material that will allow the rocket to carry heavier payloads, Kleinberger said. The launch will carry a payload designed by students at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., that will carry instruments to measure the temperature of the rocket during flight, he said.

Lunar Rocket also is developing a wider composite upper stage about 110 millimeters in diameter, with help from students at Fredericksburg High School in Texas, Kleinberger said. The students who are part of a rocket building class taught at the school began design work in March, and the first launch of the new upper stage could take place late this year or in early 2004, he said.

With the new upper stages, the rockets will be capable of lofting payloads weighing up to 2.2 kilograms, and Lunar Rocket plans to charge about $9,000 a kilogram, Kleinberger said.

The increased capability will provide Lunar Rocket with an advantage in the competition with the Florida Space Institute to market the rocket, Kleinberger said. Lunar Rocket also will sell launches from spaceports outside of Florida, he said.

“My vision is a little bit more national, while the [Florida Space Institute] would like business to come to Cape Canaveral,” Kleinberger said. “It will be interesting to see how this shakes out going forward, and we probably will end up selling our composite upper stages to schools that the [Florida Space Institute] finds as customers.” Lunar Rocket plans to be able to turn around the missions within a typical school year, which usually begins in August or September, and ends in May or June the following year, Kleinberger said.

Lunar Rocket has spent about $100,000 on the project so far, which includes absorbing the cost of test launches, design work for the upper stages and marketing, Kleinberger said.

Lunar Rocket already is in discussions to provide the Universities Space Research Association with a batch of launches, Kleinberger said.

Jeff Cardenas, space operations program manager for the Columbia, Md.-based Universities Space Research Association, said the group has signed a “letter of support” for Lunar Rocket, but there is no formal deal in place.

“There is a lot of interest as long as the cost is fairly inexpensive,” Cardenas said. “Sounding rockets tend to play to a certain research discipline, and we think this could be pretty inexpensive.”