Soaring 6,000 feet (1,800+ meters) above the sun-baked California desert, a pair
of Edwards Air Force Base aircraft, a C-17 Globemaster III shadowed by a C-12
Huron observer aircraft, carried out an unusual mission with an even more
unusual cargo recently.
The rear of the aircraft yawned open and the loadmasters released the restraints
and a 65-foot (19.8 meters) rocket slid out the back of the aircraft beginning
its descent to the desert floor.
The rocket drop was a test mission, the first of a series dubbed the Falcon
Small Launch Vehicle program. The program is a joint venture between the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Air Force. It is designed to
develop a new method of putting a 1,000-pound (500 kg) payload into low-Earth
This first test was the successful drop of an inert version of a QuickReach
Booster rocket filled with water to increase its weight to 50,000 pounds
(22,000+ kg) which is about two-thirds the weight of an actual booster.
To compensate for the difference in weight and the center of gravity, the
aircraft was put on autopilot at the moment of the release. The test vehicle is
also the longest article ever dropped from a C-17.
Another unique aspect of this mission was the method of getting the test vehicle
out of the C-17. In most airdrops, the cargo is strapped to pallets, and the
whole package is ejected from the aircraft. For this test, a system of rollers
was developed to guide the inert rocket out of the aircraft.
The Falcon SLV program is ultimately aimed toward affordable space lift. The
current price of launching a rocket payload can be $20 million or more.
Completion of the Falcon project should reduce that price tag to less than $5
The affordability of the system is enhanced by its simplicity, DARPA officials
said. Since traditional rockets launch from the ground, a complicated and
expensive rocket nozzle must be used to compensate for altitude variation. Also,
propane fuel can be self pressurized at that altitude, so no turbo pumps or
pressure feed systems are required to force propellant into the combustion
Another advantage to launching a satellite by air is the launch location and
time is limitless. Currently, rocket launches are dictated by the location of
launch facilities and many other factors including weather. By putting the
system on a C-17, there is no limit to geographic location, and the aircraft can
fly away from or above the weather.
The Airlaunch rocket can be used by other services, especially the Army, to put
tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites into low-Earth
orbit. These tactical satellites could be used and controlled by combatant
commanders, supplying the frontline warfighter with in-orbit ISR capability.
This first test, dropping a mock-up rocket from 6,000 feet, was designed to test
the safety of the release system, program officials said. Future drops will be
at increasingly higher altitudes, ultimately testing the drop of a live rocket,
which will launch at altitude after leaving the aircraft.
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