Swiss Company Plans Unmanned Shuttle Launches From Airliner
A Swiss company plans to blend a design used for decades by NASA’s space shuttle program with another employed by an American launch company in a bid to “democratize” the launching of small satellites into orbit. Swiss Space Systems, or S3, plans to use an Airbus A300 with a small, unmanned, winged space-launch vehicle on its back to boost payloads into orbit.
By using the relatively inexpensive and common A300 as the first stage of the booster, S3 is following the lead of Orbital Systems, which has used a Lockheed L1011 for more than 40 successful launches of its Pegasus rocket. But unlike the Pegasus, which is carried on the belly of the former airliner, S3 will carry its launch vehicle on top of the A300, much like NASA’s 747s carried the space shuttle orbiters.
The Swiss company already has investors and sponsors lined up and is hoping to make the first test flight of its new design in 2017. S3 plans to use the airport in Payerne, Switzerland, as its base. Coincidentally, Payerne is currently home to Solar Impulse and its solar-powered aircraft that will be flying across the United States later this spring.
Following the trend of the modern space industry (as well as the decades-old Orbital launch system), S3 hopes to significantly reduce the cost of launching payloads into orbit. The company’s A300 will carry the small, unmanned shuttle to 33,000 feet (10km), where it will be released from the airliner and use its own rocket power to climb to 262,000 feet (80km). A small, upper-stage rocket will then boost the relatively small, 551-pound (250kg) payload to its final orbit around 420 miles up (700km).