t/Space Tests Air-Launch Passenger-Carrying Rocket Concept
The Scaled Composites’ Proteus aircraft carried 23%-scale versions of the proposed CXV capsule and its QuickReach II booster over the Mojave desert to test a new air-launch method. Image
Credit: t/Space

An innovative technology designed to launch future passenger-carrying rockets via a carrier aircraft has been tested over the desert landscape of Mojave, California.


Transformational Space Corporation (t/Space) of Reston, Virginia and Scaled Composites of Mojave wrapped up three weeks of flight tests yesterday, drop-testing prototype boosters at altitude. The tests are part of t/Space work on a proposed CXV people-carrying capsule and its QuickReach II booster concept.


The dummy boosters released by aircraft used a technique that caused them to rotate towards vertical without requiring wings. According to a company press statement, this concept allows an aft-crossing trajectory in which the air-launched hardware crosses behind the aircraft.

That's a different approach than other air-launched rockets, such as the Pegasus booster, the X-15 rocket plane, as well as SpaceShipOne after release from its carrier plane, the White Knight. These craft use wings to turn themselves from horizontal flight to the vertical position, then head skyward on suborbital or orbital trajectories.

The t/Space technique greatly enhances safety, according to officials working on the project.

Look: no wings


The new air launch method is called Trapeze-Lanyard Air Drop (t/LAD) launch. The test drops utilized the Proteus aircraft built by Scaled Composites. That company, led by aerospace designer, Burt Rutan, also built and flew SpaceShipOne.

According to t/Space, in addition to greatly enhancing safety, eliminating the wings increases the payload a rocket can take to orbit. The innovation developed by t/Space is a device that remains attached to the nose of the deployed booster - all of a half-second after the center of the rocket is released.

That slight tug on the booster's nose starts the hardware rotating as it drops. A small parachute on the rocket's nozzle ensures this rotation does not happen quickly.

The Mojave tests involved three sub-scale dummy booster drop tests: May 24, June 7, and June 14. The mock boosters were comprised of two steel tanks welded together with a Fiberglas nose and nozzle. They were 23 percent of the size of the actual rockets to be developed for sending a four-person capsule into orbit, noted a t/Space statement.

Since the dummy hardware had no engines, each booster crashed onto the dry Cuddeback Lake, about 35 miles northeast of Mojave, California. The wreckage was collected and removed.

Rapid prototyping

Transformational Space Corporation LLC is developing vehicles for NASA's Vision for Space Exploration. As one of eight companies funded by NASA, t/Space is developing concepts for the agency's Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), a sought after way to take over non-cargo duties from an eventually to be retired space shuttle fleet.

NASA agreed to let t/Space use some of its $3 million study money to build and test hardware in addition to conducting analytical studies. The successful drop test program, t/Space pointed out, demonstrates that small companies using rapid prototyping can develop new hardware very rapidly.

"We went from brainstorm to booster drop in just 135 days," said David Gump, president of t/Space in a company press statement.

Contractors on the t/Space team include: Scaled Composites Inc., the company that last year flew privately-sponsored suborbital flights with its SpaceShipOne, as well as AirLaunch LLC, a firm under contract with the Defense Department to develop a low-cost responsive launch vehicle.