Soaring 6,000 feet
above the sun-baked California desert, a pair of Edwards aircraft
-- a C-17 Globemaster III shadowed by a C-12 Huron observer
aircraft -- carried out an unusual mission with an even more
unusual cargo recently.
The rear of the aircraft yawned open, and at the prompt of
"five, four, three, two, one, green light," the loadmasters
released the restraints and a 65-foot rocket slid out the back of
the aircraft beginning its descent to the desert floor.
The rocket drop was a test mission -- the first of a series
dubbed the Falcon Small Launch Vehicle program. The program is a
joint venture between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
and the Air Force. It is designed to develop a new method of
putting a 1,000-pound payload into low-Earth orbit.
This first test was the successful drop of an inert version of a
QuickReach Booster rocket filled with water to increase its weight
to 50,000 pounds -- about two-thirds the weight of an actual
To compensate for the difference in weight and the center of
gravity, the aircraft was put on autopilot at the moment of the
release, said Maj. Landon Henderson, a 418th Flight Test Squadron
"Fifty-thousand pounds going out the back is a pretty big
change," he said.
Major Henderson said this flight was doubly exciting for him.
Not only was the mission “fun,” but it was also his
final flight here. The test vehicle is also the longest article
ever dropped from a C-17.
Another unique aspect of this mission was the method of getting
the test vehicle out of the C-17. In most airdrops, the cargo is
strapped to pallets, and the whole package is ejected from the
"For this test, a system of rollers was developed to guide the
inert rocket out of the aircraft," said Chris Webber, a 418th FLTS
test project engineer. "This was quite an exciting event. It ended
up going out very clean ... but there's always that anticipation of
The Falcon SLV program is ultimately aimed toward affordable
space lift. The current price of launching a rocket payload can be
$20 million or more. Completion of the Falcon project should reduce
that price tag to less than $5 million.
Dr. Steve Walker, DARPA's program manager for the Falcon SLV,
said the developing capability will give U.S. forces a huge
advantage because of its affordability and flexibility.
The affordability of the system is enhanced by its simplicity,
DARPA officials said. Since traditional rockets launch from the
ground, a complicated and expensive rocket nozzle must be used to
compensate for altitude variation.
"Because the rocket is launched at altitude, it takes advantage
of higher performing and extremely simple nozzles, which can be
optimized for the higher altitude condition," Dr. Walker said.
"Also, propane fuel can be self pressurized at that altitude, so no
turbopumps or pressure feed systems are required to force
propellant into the combustion chamber."
Another advantage to launching a satellite by air is the launch
location and time is limitless. Currently, rocket launches are
dictated by the location of launch facilities and many other
factors including weather. By putting the system on a C-17, there
is no limit to geographic location, and the aircraft can fly away
from or above the weather.
"The Airlaunch rocket can be flown anywhere in the world in any
unmodified C-17," Dr. Walker said. "This capability can be used by
other services, especially the Army, to put tactical intelligence,
surveillance and reconnaissance satellites into low-Earth orbit.
These tactical satellites could be used and controlled by combatant
commanders, supplying the frontline warfighter with in-orbit ISR
This first test, dropping a mock-up rocket from 6,000 feet, was
designed to test the safety of the release system, program
officials said. Future drops will be at increasingly higher
altitudes, ultimately testing the drop of a live rocket, which will
launch at altitude after leaving the aircraft. [ANN Salutes
Christopher Ball, 95th Air Base Wing Public Affairs]