Rockets of Today


In 2004, a suborbital spaceplane called SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize by being the first privately funded craft to take a human pilot to 100 km in altitude, and then do it again within a week. This generated huge publicity. The vehicle was designed by legendary airplane builder Burt Rutan (now retired), and built by his company Scaled Composites, with funding from Paul Allen. It launched from under a specially made carrier plane, the White Knight. It used a hybrid rocket motor, with solid fuel and liquified oxidizer, namely nitrous oxide. (This is the same approach the Mythbusters used to make cheap crude rockets out of plumbing parts and the like, burning assorted fuels from candle wax to gummy bears to salami.)

After winning the prize, they formed a joint venture with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which started preselling tickets for suborbital flights. This generated even more hype, but nothing happened for years. Scaled Composites started developing the larger SpaceShipTwo, but in 2007 an engine test killed three engineers and injured three more with shrapnel. They got it flying (or at least gliding) in 2010, but in 2014 it broke up, killing one pilot and throwing the other into open air with numerous injuries.

That same year, they fired Sierra Nevada Corporation as their engine subcontractor and took engine development in-house. They kept the hybrid approach but changed the fuel formula from a rubber-based mix to nylon... and then changed it back.

Branson continued to insist that it would be ready for paying passengers real soon, and planned to ride it himself shortly. But in the meantime, Blue Origin had their New Shepard ready to sell suborbital tourist seats around the same time, and they offer bigger windows, higher altitude, a more regular cadence, and (so far) a record free of accidents. But Virgin will offer a longer and more interesting flight, lower G forces, and windows in more directions.&ensp:Branson did finally ride the thing, reaching about 86 kilometers altitude (which counts as space in America but not internationally) in 2021, nearly seventeen years after winning the X Prize, and fifteen after Branson started accepting money for tickets. They did this just days ahead of Jeff Bezos riding in his New Shepard, which itself had been in development for around fifteen years. They both finally got there just a couple of months ahead of SpaceX sending tourists on a multiday orbital flight.

So in the meantime Virgin took a stab at orbital launches. Not with a spacecraft, but just with a little carbon fiber rocket which is also launched from under a carrier plane. So it’s basically similar to a Pegasus in concept, but liquid fueled. They have a long way to go before they can ever take tourists to orbit... and now they might not even pursue that.

The LauncherOne rocket is a two stage carbon fiber kerosene burner with fins at the back, with an engine they call the NewtonThree on the first stage, and a smaller NewtonFour on the second. NewtonFour is restartable. Newtons One and Two never flew — they were inadequate. Those were pressure-fed; the new ones have turbopumps. And woops, with the larger engines it turns out to be too heavy for their White Knight Two carrier plane, so they’re sticking it under a used 747 from the Virgin Atlantic fleet, which they’ve dubbed (sigh) “Cosmic Girl”. At first they took off from Mojave and did polar orbits only, but that limitation didn’t last long, with launches from Britain being added in 2022.

They began work on upgrading the NewtonThree engine to a more powerful version called N3.2, even as the original had yet to fully prove itself over multiple launches. They also started work on an ion-engine kick stage... and are now tackling first stage reuse via parachutes. The new push was fueled by the cash raised from going public. They’re also looking at a somewhat bigger LauncherTwo, but it’s not clear how that will attach to the plane — definitely not on the wing. They’re adding more planes too, to accommodate hoped-for cadence increases. Each one might end up based on a different continent.

Branson had previously worked on a deal to bring Saudi money into Virgin Galactic and its spinoff Virgin Orbit — a billion bucks — but after one too many high profile human rights abuses by the Saudi government, he called it off and told them to keep their money.

Don't hold your breath on reusability, but even in expendable mode they’re already way underpricing the Pegasus, and have presold lots of flights. They say that having no launchpad will allow them to quite easily ramp up to a rapid launch pace, but everyone says that. Of course, they might well face stiff price competition from other new launchers such as Electron, if they also succeed in ramping up production so they don’t fall behind. Virgin Orbit hopes to do about six launches in 2022, which is the same pace that Rocket Lab managed in 2020 and 2021.

One advantage of launching from under an airplane is that the whole operation is portable. They’ve “trailerized” their ground support equipment and made a mobile mission control, so their whole launch operation can move around the world to any available airport, including ones near the equator. They can also launch in worse weather than other rockets.

But their ability to price launches competitively faces extra difficulty because they have spent several times as much money on initial development as their competitors (Rocket Lab, Astra, Firefly, etc) have spent, and that money will be tough to get back. They’ll need to either outdo Rocket Lab on cadence and convenience, or find a profit margin while matching their prices.

They finally attempted their first test launch in 2020. The drop and ignition went fine but it failed early in the first stage burn when an oxygen pipe broke under pressure. They achieved orbit on the second attempt, early in 2021, and got their second success in mid-year with their first commercial launch. A third followed in early 2022, so the cadence is starting slow, but the success rate is solid so far. And even better, this little orbital Rocket probably won’t get anyone killed.

LauncherOne: mass ~30 t, diam 1.6 m, thrust 330 kN, imp unknown, type Gk, payload 0.5 t (1.7%), cost $24M/t at first, record 4/0/1 as of July 8, 2022.