Microlaunchers seeking to transform space business
The popular view of space flight is that it is dominated by such monster vehicles as the Saturn V and space shuttle. Since the first space launch in 1957, the image of a rocket has been of a lumbering, towering behemoth that costs millions of dollars. If a company wants to put a small payload into space, it must ride as a secondary payload. But now a Las Vegas company is aiming to make space flight affordable, as well as and small.
Microlaunchers LLC, is working on launch vehicles not much larger than a car or truck in order to send small payloads into orbit, which may allow for twice the missions to space at half the cost of a medium-class or heavy-class launch vehicle.
“Microlaunchers is an attempt to do in space what the Altair and its kind did for computers – to make space exploration available for participation by many – more than just something to read about,” states the official Microlaunchers website.
CEO Charles Pooley founded Microlaunchers in 1995 after working on an amateur rocket design with the Pacific Rocket Society. He got as far as building and testing an engine and the first Microlaunchers rocket was based on that design. He hopes the Microlaunchers model will serve as a starting point to a whole new kind of space industry and compares the new space age to the early days of the computer field—before microcomputers.
“No other company is doing or planning what Microlaunchers plans,” Pooley explained. “No others have as the mission making direct involvement in space exploration possible for many. The creation of a culture of ‘space exploration people,’ as the advent of microcomputers created the culture and population of computer skilled.”
Right now, in order to place any payload, large or small, into orbit, a company or individual must wait for a place on a huge rocket like United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Delta IV Heavy or SpaceX’s Falcon 9, where the payload would be one of a number of payloads deployed to various orbits. Instead of launching multiple payloads on huge rockets, Microlaunchers plans to launch individual payloads on small rockets to whatever specific orbit the customer wishes.
“The plan is to start small to reduce to a minimum the entry cost of participation. This means initially, each launcher is to be as small as physics permits, as inexpensive as possible, and to be produced in large numbers,” Pooley said.
COO Blair Gordon explained that Microlaunchers is unique in offering to launch a small payload on a single, dedicated rocket.
“Currently a single 1U CubeSat to LEO on a secondary payload is about $125,000 through a brokerage like Spaceflight Services,” Gordon said. “Let’s assume that they have a 30 percent brokerage markup. That gives a base launch cost of about $87,500. Microlaunchers are much smaller than a Falcon 1, because they were designed with launch cost in mind they are cheaper. Perhaps about $55,000 to LEO dedicated instead of $87,500 as a secondary payload. And it’s more than price. As a secondary payload you are committed to the launch window and trajectory of the primary payload. With dedicated you are the primary payload. We have done research and we believe there has never been a CubeSat launched with propulsion because of the risk to the primary payload. That goes away with dedicated.”
Pooley elaborated: “The planned cost of each Microlauncher launch is not comparable to that of any other design. They are for much larger, by a factor of hundreds to thousands smaller than the usual other launcher designs, which assume each being an individual low quantity system for launch rates of a few per year.”
Gordon describes the Microlauncher system as “the right sized space access for the customer… A launch to match the mission… It’s like public transport. If you are a CubeSat the only way to get to orbit is to ride the big bus, on a pre scheduled and pre determined route, where you get off as close to your destination as possible. Microlaunchers is a taxi cab.”
Video courtesy of Microlaunchers LLC and Charles Pooley
The first rocket will be the ML-1, a 21-foot rocket capable of launching 200 grams beyond Earth’s gravity.
Pooley described the launch system: “The launches are to use a hold-down type of launch pad that can either sit on the ground in a way similar to that for Tripoli type model rockets or on the top of a spar buoy for offshore launch. There is to be no installed structures for launching. All is portable as with model rockets.”
The vehicles are designed and manufactured in Las Vegas, Nevada. Spaceport Oklahoma and Black Rock, Nevada, are being considered as the future test site for these tiny vehicles. The launch site will likely be on the East Coast, over the Atlantic, however.
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Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.