Helicopters could regain a key spaceflight role if the United Launch Alliance prevails.
The Boeing-Lockheed Martin partnership that provides satellite launches proposes replacing its current Atlas heavy launcher with a new rocket—the Vulcan. The main reason? Cost. All of an Atlas is discarded (once its payload is set free). That’s pricey, and cheaper competitors loom. To cut costs, the Vulcan would have reusable engines.
That’s where the helicopter comes in. The engine section would break away after launch, then deploy a parafoil at 75,000 ft. to control its descent. A helo (perhaps a Chinook?) would snatch a trailing drogue, then return the engines for overhaul. The snatch should impart a roughly 1.2 g load on the engines, according to an alliance paper presented at this week’s National Space Symposium.
The Vulcan, aiming for a 2019 first flight, would revive a legacy dating to 1961 of American astronauts ending their missions with rides aboard carrier-based U.S. Marine Corps and Navy helos. (Space station crews return directly to land, and NASA won’t bring astronauts back for water landings until 2021 at the earliest.) U.S. Air Force helicopters provided safety support for space shuttle launches and still do for East and West Coast satellite launches.
Related: Commercial Technology News