Two news stories today about two different suborbital rockets built by private companies:
The first story outlines the results from the August 25 test flight of SARGE.
The rocket reached an altitude of approximately 28 km. Launch and recovery took place at Spaceport America on August 25th, 2018. The rocket carried nine payloads. The flight demonstrated the SARGE system’s reusability when the vehicle was recovered with damage only to sacrificial components. The test also demonstrated the capability of the autonomous control system and validated the preflight vehicle integration process.
They have designed SARGE to fly up to 200 times, and then plan to sell it to the military which will use it as a target in its own tests.
The second story describes a suborbital launch yesterday at Spaceport America. This suborbital rocket carried three NASA experiments, the most interesting of which was the first test of a heat shield designed to open like an umbrella.
Made out of thickly woven and highly heat-resistant carbon fibers, supported by semi-rigid ribs, the ADEPT system fits into existing vehicle launch systems, but expands when separated from the rocket into a configuration that allows it to perform its mission.
The ADEPT model tested Wednesday spread to 30 inches in diameter after separation. Venkatapathy said a diameter of 75 to 80 feet would be required to deliver a crew of seven or so human explorers safely onto the surface of Mars, which has a lower gravity pull than Earth.
He said a thicker carbon weave and different dimensions would be needed to deliver scientific equipment to the surface of Venus, a planet with a gravity pull nearly as great as Earth’s, making approaches hotter and faster.
Even if neither of these companies ever scale up to orbital rockets, they signal the change in how NASA does things. In the past NASA built its own suborbital rockets. Now, they are using privately-built rockets, which allows for competition and more innovation.
This is basically the same transition NASA is undergoing in its commercial manned program, going from being the sole builder and designer of spacecraft, enforced by a government-imposed monopoly, to merely a customer buying spacecraft from many private builders. It is a transition that can only generate good results in the future.