Satellites today are launched via booster rocket from a limited number of ground facilities, which can involve a month or longer of preparation for a small payload and significant cost for each mission. Launch costs are driven in part today by fixed site infrastructure, integration, checkout and flight rules. Fixed launch sites can be rendered idle by something as innocuous as rain, and they also limit the direction and timing of orbits satellites can achieve.
An air launch, where the rocket is dropped from an air-breathing mothership that’s borne aloft by wings and aerodynamic principles instead of pure thrust, tends to be vastly cheaper than a ground launch.
By using the lowest and thickest part of the atmosphere to lift the wings of the mothership, instead of forcing the sheer power of the rocket to push through it itself, you can save on a lot of fuel (and thus, money). And by cutting out the first and hardest 40,000 feet of the atmosphere using an air-breathing-mothership-and-drop approach, you can cut potentially millions from you budget…
… if you’ve only got something small that needs to go into space, it’s hard to beat the mothership approach. Air launch systems have other advantages too, such as the ability to launch from practically any runway, thereby avoiding weather that could delay a ground launch, as well as launching the rocket in any direction. Perhaps most importantly, the mothership itself is reusable, meaning a big portion of the launch system’s architecture doesn’t have to be built from scratch every time. For smaller payloads, motherships represent the future of space travel.
Burt Rutan has some ideas about making motherships much larger, in order to launch ever larger payloads into virtually any type of orbit possible from Earth.
DARPA is developing a more modest and versatile form of airlaunch spacecraft that can be launched from an F-15E fighter jet.
The goal of ALASA is to develop a significantly less expensive approach for routinely launching small satellites, with a goal of at least threefold reduction in costs compared to current military and US commercial launch costs. Currently, small satellite payloads cost more than $30,000 per pound to launch, and must share a launcher with other satellites. ALASA seeks to launch satellites on the order of 100 pounds for less than $1M total, including range support costs, to orbits that are selected specifically for each 100 pound payload.
Several entities are developing airlaunch assist vehicles, including Virgin Galactic, Stratolaunch, Orbital, the US Air Force, and several more.
NASA is also interested in developing private contractors for launching multiple small payloads via ground launch:
NASA has awarded a total of $17.1 million to three companies to launch miniscule cubesats, which to date have had to tag along as secondary payloads on big rockets.
The space agency gave $6.9 million to Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab USA; $5.5 million to Firefly Space Systems of Cedar Park, Texas; and $4.7 million to Virgin Galactic LLC of Long Beach, California, in three separate, fixed-price “Venture Class Launch Services” (VCLS) contracts. [Cubesats: Tiny, Versatile Spacecraft Explained (Infographic)]
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is attempting a comeback from a disastrous launch explosion earlier this year: https://www.extremetech.com/extreme/216240-spacex-plans-to-have-revamped-falcon-9-ready-for-launch-in-december
Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin is still perfecting its launch system:
The “Dream Chaser” is proceeding with its novel approach:
United Launch Alliance is becoming a reliable go-to contractor for critical larger payload launches
Heavy Launchers are on the way. NASA, SpaceX, ESA, Russia, and others are developing heavy lifters in preparation for larger scale development in space.
Upcoming space conference: http://astronautscholarship.org/programs-and-events/space-rendezvous-2015/
The permanent development of cis-lunar space makes more sense as a launchpad to other planets beyond the Earth – Moon system . First learn to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. Space is a dangerous and alien environment. Long-distance manned missions beyond cis-lunar space seems a bit premature at this time. Logistics and supply lines . . .