Competition To Develop Air Force’s Hybrid Launch Vehicle Shaping Up

Four teams are competing for a U.S. Air Force contract to develop an advanced launch vehicle that consists of a reusable first stage and an expendable second stage booster.

The winner of the Hybrid Launch Vehicle competition is expected to produce a vehicle that will be capable of launching payloads into space and having the reusable first stage ready to fly again within 48 hours.

The Air Force envisions an initial system that is capable of lifting 10,000 pounds to 15,000 pounds to low earth orbit at one-third the cost of a similar mission with an expendable launch vehicle today, the Air Force says. Eventually there could be a family of vehicles to accommodate all sizes of military payloads.

Four Development Contracts

Lockheed Martin Corp. announced May 8 that it received a contract from the Air Force under the Hybrid Launch Vehicle Studies and Analysis program, which is part of the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space initiative. Andrews Space Inc. unveiled its award May 9, while Orbital Sciences Corp. announced its contract May 10. Northrop Grumman Corp. had announced a similar contract in April.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems received a contract from the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif., with a base value of $1.2 million for a period of 14 months and includes a six-month, $1.3 million option.

The contract calls for the company to develop conceptual designs, a subscale demonstrator and related ground hardware and infrastructure for a hybrid launch vehicle. Lockheed Martin’s team includes Aerojet and Rocketdyne for the reusable propulsion elements,

“Our expertise in reusable launch vehicles positions us to formulate a system design concept that will completely meet the Air Force’s needs for a highly operable vehicle that also is extremely reliable,” Dave Kennon, Hybrid Launch Vehicle program manager for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said in a statement. “Under our concept, the HLV will take off vertically and the reusable first stage will return to the launch site for a horizontal landing.”

Andrews received a contract similar to Lockheed Martin and plans a similar vehicle, but added that “reusable and expendable vehicle elements … can be combined to deploy payloads between 2,000 and 60,000 lbs to various orbits,” the company said.

Orbital plans to base its effort on the X-34 research vehicle that the company designed during the late 1990s for NASA. “As a result, the [Hybrid Launch Vehicle] effort is afforded a significant head start compared to starting the program from scratch,” Brian Winters, Orbital’s Hybrid Launch Vehicle Program Manager, said in a statement.

Northrop Grumman unveiled its 20-month, $3 million contract and is developing concepts for a vehicle that launches vertically and releases the upper stage with the payload at an altitude of about 150,000 feet. The upper stages boost the satellite payload to orbit or deliver a conventional weapon to a distant target. Meanwhile, the first stage flies back and lands at its home base like an autonomous, unmanned aircraft. The first stage will use a rocket engine during the boost portion of its mission and an integrated set of air-breathing jet engines for its return flight.

“The [Hybrid Launch Vehicle] concept offers the Defense Department a relatively simple, affordable way to put standardized, tactical satellites into orbit quickly after receiving a request for support,” Dennis Poulos, Northrop Grumman’s project manager, said in a statement. “… The reusable nature of the first stage reduces the cost of producing, testing and storing new hardware for each flight. It also allows the launch vehicle to be inspected in a hangar like an aircraft, mated with a new upper stage and returned to the launch pad in about 48 hours or less.”

Two Finalists

The Air Force expects to choose a pair of companies in fiscal year 2007 to continue development of their subscale concepts through a preliminary design review. The subscale model would be used to validate the high-speed flight characteristics of the Hybrid Launch Vehicle, as well as the ability of the reusable first stage to return to base safely and be prepared for the next mission quickly.

The winner of the competition is expected to have a full-scale vehicle ready to begin operations by 2018.

–Jason Bates

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