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C-17 Drops Booster Rocket Mockup

By | June 26, 2006

      A C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft dropped a 65-foot, 65,000-pound mockup of a booster rocket, a move toward a new and better means of placing satellites in low earth orbit.

      The drop, over Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., was executed by the 418th Flight Test Squadron (FTS) team over the Edwards precision impact range area.

      Performed at 29,500 feet above sea level, the drop was part of a project called Falcon Small Launch Vehicle (SLV), a joint venture between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and the Air Force, designed to develop a new method for putting satellites into low-earth orbit.

      Lt. Col. Dan Fritz, director of operations for the 418th FTS, and the project pilot for the tests, said that in addition to testing the Falcon SLV system, the squadron is expanding the envelope of the C-17’s capabilities.

      “Air speed, altitude and weight are what we’re expanding on this drop,” Fritz said. “The next drop will be weight and altitude expansion.”

      There are two drops planned for this phase of the project according to Kristen Pearson, 418th FLTS Falcon program manager.

      “For the next one, we’ll increase the weight to 72,000 pounds and fly at the service ceiling, which is right around 31,600 feet,” she said. “This is the heaviest single item airdropped from a C-17 to date.”

      If the drops are successful and the program is given a green light to proceed into the next phase, future drop tests are planned that will validate repeatability of the drop conditions at altitudes and weights identical to the recent test, which was the second in the series.

      “It’s a bit of a challenge for the aircraft,” Fritz said. “We’re specifically taking the aircraft up to its service ceiling for these weights, which gives us a smaller air speed margin for the aircraft. We won’t have the thrust excess we usually enjoy at lower altitudes.

      “When you get to zero excess thrust, you’re at a point where you can no longer climb. All you can do is descend,” he said.

      Tests first started at Edwards in September, when a C-17 dropped a 50,000-pound test vehicle from an altitude of 6,000 feet. This drop was conducted to test the safety of the release systems.

      Test vehicles, built by AirLaunch LLC, are designed to simulate their Quickreach booster rocket. According to an AirLaunch press release, the weight of test vehicles will increase from the original 50,000 pounds, about two-thirds the weight of their booster, to 72,000 pounds.

      DARPA officials said the development of the Falcon SLV capability will give U.S. forces a huge advantage because of its flexibility.

      Launching from a high altitude, instead of from a pad or silo on the ground, means a vehicle may not have to use as much fuel to attain orbit.

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