Our Spaceflight Heritage: The second flight of Rotary Rocket’s Roton ATV
MOJAVE, Calif. — On September 16, 1999, the Roton Atmospheric Test Vehicle (ATV) made its second successful test flight. The conical rotorcraft rose to a planned altitude of 20 feet (6.1 meters) above the runway of Mojave Air and Space Port, propelled by hydrogen peroxide tip rockets, and hovered for two-and-a-half minutes. The ATV was piloted by Marti Sarigul-Klijn and co-piloted by Brian Binnie, who would later pilot SpaceShipOne on its second X-Prize-winning flight.
Rotary Rocket Company was founded in the late 1990s by Gary Hudson to develop the Roton concept as a fully reusable single-stage-to-orbit manned spacecraft. The original concept was to combine a launch vehicle with a helicopter. Spinning rotor blades, powered by tip rockets, would lift the vehicle during the early part of its flight. Later, when the air density had thinned to the point that helicopter flight was no longer practical, the vehicle would continue to rise on rocket power alone, with the rotor acting as a giant turbopump.
Originally, the Roton was intended to carry small communications satellites. Unfortunately, this market crashed with the failure of Iridium Communications. The Roton would have to be redesigned to carry heavier payloads. The revised design was originally intended to use a rotating aerospike engine for propulsion, the rotor blades would be used only for landing.
In June 1999, the company announced that it would use a derivative of the Fastrac rocket engine that was under development at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center instead of their own spinning engine.
The full scale, 63 feet (19 meters) tall ATV was built under contract by Scaled Composites for hover flight tests. The rotor head was salvaged from a crashed Sikorsky S-58 helicopter. The Roton ATV was rolled out of the hangar on March 1, 1999, at an event attended by approximately 1,000 people, including officials from NASA and the FAA.
“It is our job as private citizens to make space happen, to make space where people work, and to make space the place where products are made,” said novelist Tom Clancy, a member of the company’s board of directors.
The first test flight of the Roton ATV took place on July 23, 1999. During the test, the ATV performed three takeoff and landing maneuvers to demonstrate the crew’s ability to control the vehicle during the touchdown phase of the landing approach. During the 4 minutes and 40 seconds of the flight, the ATV flew at an altitude of approximately 8 feet (2.4 meters).
The goal of the second flight on September 16, 1999, was to validate performance and crew workload changes made following the first flight. These improvements included increased thrust output of the blade mounted tip rockets and installation of an auto-throttle controller to maintain the rotor RPM at a set rate. The improvements performed nominally during the flight, and the flight results correlated well with the ATV’s integral hardware-in-the-loop simulator.
“Everyone present at this second test was impressed by the stability and control exhibited by the Roton ATV. Very impressed,” said Gary C. Hudson, President and CEO of Rotary Rocket Company.
The third and final flight of the Roton ATV took place on October 12, 2000. This was the test of the ATV in transitional (forward) flight. The vehicle flew 4,300 feet (1,310 meters) down the flight line at Mojave Air and Space Port, rising to a maximum altitude of 75 feet (23 meters) and a top speed of 53 mph (85 km/h). A planned fourth flight, in which the vehicle would fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) before throttling back and returning for a soft landing, was canceled due to a lack of funding and safety concerns.
Despite having raised $33 million dollars from various individual investors, Rotary Rocket was nearing bankruptcy by the end of 1999. Rocket engine development ceased in 2000. Hudson stepped down as CEO in June of that year, and the company closed its doors in 2001. Some engineers from the company set up other rocket ventures including XCOR Aerospace, t/Space, and Space Launch. ATV Co-pilot Brian Binnie went to work at Scaled Composites where he would later pilot SpaceShipOne.
Following the closure of the company, the Roton ATV was going to be displayed at Classic Rotors Museum, near San Diego, California, but an attempt to move it there on May 9, 2003, via a short-line sling-load under an Army Reserve CH-47 Chinook, failed when the Roton began to oscillate at speeds above 35 knots (65 km/h). The Roton was moved to its permanent display location in Legacy Park at the Mojave Air and Space Port on November 10, 2006. Brian Binnie was the keynote speaker for the dedication ceremony that took place during the Veteran’s Day Ceremony on November 11.
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.
If the Roton was a viable launch vehicle I don’t know. However like the Rockwell X-30, National Aero-Space Plane, Venture Star, DC-X, Lockheed Martin X-33 and present day Skylon, all these concepts seemed doomed to failure because of a combination of lack of vision, funding or tenacity.
Eventually a single stage to orbit will happen. It would be nice if it was in my life time.