US Air Force plans reusable rockets by 2013: Rpt

The US Air Force plans to develop reusable rockets that would be able to fly back to earth and land autonomously on a runway.

Updated: May 19, 2010, 18:30 PM IST

Washington: The US Air Force plans to
develop reusable rockets that would be able to fly back to
earth and land autonomously on a runway.

For this ambitious vision, the Air Force Research
Laboratory is rolling out a USD 33-million pathfinder
programme to develop a prototype booster that can glide or fly
itself back to the launch site, the Discovery News reported.
If things will go as planned, the prototype would be
ready by 2013, giving the Air Force a round-trip ticket to
space, the report said.

Currently, most military satellites are launched on
one-time-use rockets, such as the Atlas 5 and Delta 4
vehicles. The best-known reusable boosters are flown on the
space shuttles, but recycling them is no easy task.

The solid-fuel rockets, which are jettisoned two minutes
after liftoff, parachute down into the ocean where they are
retrieved by ship. Getting them ready to fly again is
labour-intensive and expensive.

The first step of the new project would likely be aimed
at demonstrating a turn-around manoeuvre known as
"rocket-back," whereby a rocket would use its own engines to
fly back to the launch site and glide in for landing, the
report said.
More than a decade ago, NASA studied fly-back boosters
as part of a potential suite of upgrades to the space
shuttles, but never pursued its development.

At present, two companies -- Lockheed Martin and
Starcraft Boosters -- reportedly hold patents for fly-back

In 2008, Lockheed Martin quietly tested a sub-scale
reusable fly-back rocket prototype, but the details of the
test flight were not released.

A team from California Polytechnic State University in
San Luis Obispo, flew a single-stage reusable launch vehicle
three times -- once successfully -- and a two-stage vehicle

"Our two big areas of concern were the separation of the
vehicle so that it would come off the centre stage in a way
that wouldn`t damage or impede the flight, and how to control
it on the way down," Trevor Foster, project manager for the
2001-02 test programme, told Discovery News.

The US Air Force estimates a reusable, fly-back booster
could cut launch costs by 50 per cent.

For the pilot project, officials envision a sub-scale
vehicle, at least 15 feet long, that would be launched on a
sounding rocket or off of an aircraft for three test flights
to demonstrate different rocket-back manoeuvres, said the

The Air Force expects to award up to three USD
1.5-million contracts for studies then select one team for a
USD 28.5-million contract to build the prototype.

An industry briefing on the project met last week, the
report added.