Lowering the price tag of access to space is a familiar mantra in launch-for-hire circles. UP Aerospace Inc. of Farmington, Conn., is focusing its efforts to meet that challenge on the needs of educational, commercial, government and entrepreneurial customers who need affordable ways to conduct space experiments.
The workhorse rocket of UP Aerospace is the SpaceLoft XL, a 6-meter tall, single-stage, solid-fuel booster designed to launch multiple small payloads up to 225.3 kilometers above the Earth on a suborbital trajectory that takes 15 minutes from takeoff to landing.
UP Aerospace is operating from the first launch pad installed at the fledgling New Mexico Spaceport America ? a sprawling site that is roughly 70 square kilometers of open, generally level land north of Las Cruces and east of Truth or Consequences.
The SpaceLoft XL is being flown under Federal Aviation Administration amateur rocketry rules.
While cutting its teeth on the suborbital market, the start-up company envisions a family of boosters to loft larger and heavier payloads as it moves toward an orbital capability. En route to that goal, UP Aerospace is refining a number of approaches ? from payload integration to quick turnaround operations ? to help curb the cost of hurling payloads into space.
"Before we get to an orbital vehicle, we have plans for larger suborbital vehicles that are bigger by volume and also weight. We plan to develop those as we move along," said Jerry Larson, president of UP Aerospace Inc., with its primary business office in Highlands Ranch, Colo.
Larson said the company has scripted launch operations plans that would allow it to launch multiple rockets in a single day. "We?ve designed from the very beginning to have launch operations done by as few as three people ? to put vehicles together quickly on the launch pad and recycle for another flight within a few hours," Larson said in a May 15 telephone interview with Space News.
The big advantage that UP Aerospace is striving to bring to the marketplace is a new affordable cost point, said Eric Knight, co-founder of UP Aerospace and the firm?s chief marketing officer. "We want to bring that same cost thriftiness to orbital flights," he added, eyeing, in particular, the launch of small, nano- and pico-sized spacecraft.
"The way we see it, there?s going to be this intersection of more and more capable, smaller and smaller packages. We?re trying to intersect our growth and capabilities with the maturity of those smaller satellites," Knight told Space News in a May 14 phone interview. "We feel there?s an under-served market, but a growing market there. We want to be at the right place when that market matures."
UP Aerospace is riding high after its SpaceLoft XL (SL-2) suborbital rocket lifted off from Spaceport America April 28, with an array of educational, scientific and commercial payloads. The rocket reached some 117.5 kilometers altitude before nosing back to terra firma.
The payload included more than 40 scientific experiments designed and developed by 800 students from teams around the United States and the world, including Alaska, Puerto Rico and the Netherlands. The University of Colorado at Boulder fabricated another SL-2 payload, in tandem with the NASA Space Grant program. A proof-of-concept "RocketSat" payload consisted of several experiments including a GPS receiver and a video camera.
Also on board was Astrata/RocketFoto, a start-up enterprise that sends personal photos on round-trip space missions for its customers.
The SL-2 takeoff also marked the initiation of Legacy Memorial Spaceflight Mission flights, a business venture of Celestis Inc. of Houston, a group that flies the cremated remains of individuals into space.
On board the SL-2 were the ashes of television and movie actor James Doohan, best known as "Star Trek?s" "Scotty" and pioneering NASA Mercury astronaut L. Gordon Cooper, as well as the ashes of some 200 other individuals from all walks of life.
Due to a late change in rocket trajectory and wind pattern, however, the SL-2?s rocket body and payload canister individually parachuted into hard-to-search-terrain within a targeted zone inside the White Sands Missile Range. Bouts of bad weather over several weeks hampered helicopter searches for the rocket hardware. Making the search more frustrating, several tiny transmitters on the payload section had become detached during descent.
The payload container was eventually recovered May 18 ? three weeks after launch.
While bolstered by last month?s flight success, UP Aerospace suffered through a mishap when its SpaceLoft XL failed Sept. 25. That inaugural launch of the suborbital booster from New Mexico?s Spaceport America experienced problems that led to rocket corkscrewing in the air, then plowing into desert landscape after 90 seconds of flight and wrecking onboard payloads.
An investigation into the flight anomaly revealed that an aerodynamic stability margin in the rocket was too low, and the vehicle was designed incorrectly not to spin fast enough on ascent. Corrective actions were taken for the return to flight of the SpaceLoft XL.
"It takes time and it takes flights to work out the kinks. That?s kind of where we are now," Larson said. The loss of the first SpaceLoft XL was painful, "but I think that goes with this type of business."
Larson said development work on the orbital launcher already has begun.
Components of that future rocket, such as separation gear, were flown on the SpaceLoft XL to help prove out subsystems.
Working on launch vehicles from a "clean slate" offers a better chance of finding and developing rocket launch solutions that are less expensive, Larson said.
UP Aerospace is using automated launch procedures, as well as pre-assembly of the rocket at the factory to minimize on-the-pad preparation. Another feature of their service is providing payload customers special containers for their experiments so they can be loaded into the rocket "like batteries in a flashlight," Larson said.
As for the lengthy recovery time for the SL-2 mission, Larson said it?s another bump on the road as UP Aerospace increases its flight rate. "We?ll learn from this experience and make changes appropriately."
Identifying the suborbital customer base is "a business model that we?re inventing as we go," Knight noted. "We?re a transportation service like United Parcel Service or Federal Express ... that?s the closest business model that we have to work from," he said.
Three to four launches of the SpaceLoft XL from Spaceport America are possible before year?s end, Knight said. "Next year we?re looking to ramp up from that substantially ? but also in a measured way."
Dan Hanle, chief executive officer for UP Aerospace, sees UP Aerospace as a very scaleable business ? which is the intent of the launch provider as it modularizes, standardizes and customizes its operations. Further improvements in payload handling, launch and recovery abilities filter into reductions in fixed costs, he explained to Space News in a May 18 phone interview.
"So our fixed cost could go down while we are scaling up the business," Hanle observed. "Our experience curve is going to be quick. We won?t have to fire a hundred rockets to come down that curve, by my estimation. Five or six rounds and we?ll probably have zoomed in on minimum essentials ? and have improved that part of our business model as well."