A Brief History of NewSpace Suborbital Launches

SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

This week, the The FAA has on its website lists of the 216 licensed and 28 permitted launches the agency has approved since 1989. They provide fascinating insights into the state of the U.S. launch industry during that period.

In this excerpt, we will examine permitted and licensed “NewSpace” suborbital launches by Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, Scaled Composites and SpaceX. We will see how prizes and competitions have helped to spur on launch vehicle development, the long gaps that can follow initial spurts of progress as companies take the next steps, and how few flights some billionaires are actually getting for their money.

Armadillo Aerospace Launch History (Partial)

#DateVehicleSiteObjectiveResult
19Jan 05, 2013STIG-B IIISpaceport AmericaLaunch Scientific Payload
Failure
18Nov 04, 2012STIG-BSpaceport AmericaLaunch Scientific Payload
Success
17Oct 06, 2012STIG-BSpaceport AmericaLaunch Scientific Payload
Success
16Oct 25, 2008QUAD (Pixel)Las CrucesNorthrop Grumman Lunar Lander ChallengeFlight Test
15Oct 24, 2008MOD-1Las CrucesNorthrop Grumman Lunar Lander ChallengeFlight Test
14Oct 24, 2008MOD-1Las CrucesNorthrop Grumman Lunar Lander ChallengeFlight Test
13Oct 24, 2008MOD-1Las CrucesNorthrop Grumman Lunar Lander ChallengeFlight Test
12Oct 28, 2007MOD-1HollomanX Prize Cup CompetitionFlight Test
11Oct 28, 2007MOD-1HollomanX Prize Cup CompetitionFlight Test
10Oct 27, 2007MOD-1HollomanX Prize Cup CompetitionFlight Test
09Oct 27, 2007MOD-1HollomanX Prize Cup CompetitionFlight Test
08Oct 20, 2007MOD-1OklahomaFlight TestFlight Test
07Jun 02, 2007QUAD (Pixel)OklahomaFlight TestFlight Test
06Jun 02, 2007QUAD (Pixel)OklahomaFlight TestFlight Test
05Oct 21, 2006QUAD (Pixel)Las CrucesX Prize Cup CompetitionFlight Test
04Oct 21, 2006QUAD (Pixel)Las CrucesX Prize Cup CompetitionFlight Test
03Oct 21, 2006QUAD (Pixel)Las CrucesX Prize Cup CompetitionFlight Test
02Oct 20, 2006QUAD (Pixel)Las CrucesX Prize Cup CompetitionFlight Test
01Oct 19, 2006QUAD (Pixel)Las CrucesX Prize Cup CompetitionFlight Test

John Carmack’s company was one of the early leaders of the NewSpace movement, winning the first stage of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge in 2008 and narrowly losing out on the second stage to Masten Space Systems (whose flights are not included in the FAA data).

Since that high point nearly five years ago, things have not gone nearly as well, with a sharply declining launch rate. The company is currently broke and in “hibernation” mode until some new investors can be found.

Sixteen of the company’s 19 launches were conducted during a two-year period between October 2006 and October 2008. Thirteen of those flights were directly associated with the Lunar Lander Challenge and the X Prize Cup Competition.

After the company’s final Lunar Lander Challenge flight on Oct. 25, 2008, there was a four-year gap before the next launches. That period corresponded with both the end of competitions and a severe economic downturn.

Armadillo began launching again in late 2012, conducting three flights of its new STIG-B rocket. Then there was nothing but silence until a story appeared on Thursday on NewSpace Journal in which Carmack said the company was effectively out of money and seeking new investors.

Carmack cites a number of reasons for Armadillo’s problems. The company had been making money with outside contracts, but Carmack felt this was taking Armadillo away from its core work. (This could explain the lack of launches.) He then decided to not take on outside work and fund the company out of his own pocket. This year, he reached the limit of what he could fund.

Editor’s Note: The above list is actually incomplete and does not include Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge flights in 2009. It also doesn’t include a number of flights that took place between 2008 and 2012 that were not covered by FAA permits and licenses but rather amateur waivers rules, as Jonathan Goff points out in his comments to this story. So, the company was quite busy over the past five years.

I regret the error and did not wish to mislead anyone concerning the company. There was a combination of an incomplete FAA database and my own ignorance of launch rules. This is something I should have checked more thoroughly before publishing.

Scaled Composites Suborbital Launch History

#DateVehicleSiteObjectiveResult
04Apr 29, 2013SpaceShipTwoMojavePowered Flight into SpaceSuccess
03Oct 04, 2004SpaceShipOneMojaveAnsari X Prize Flight into Space
Success
02Sep 29, 2004SpaceShipOneMojaveAnsari X Prize Flight into Space
Success
01Jun 21, 2004SpaceShipOneMojavePowered Flight Test
Success

SpaceShipOne was one of the most successful launch vehicle programs in history. Developed over a couple of years on a (relative) shoestring budget of $25 million provided by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, SpaceShipOne became the first privately-financed vehicle to reach space in June 2004. Less than four months later, the ship completed two suborbital flights within five days to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Designer Burt Rutan wanted to continue operating SpaceShipOne on a series of promotional flights. Allen — unnerved by the white-knuckle nature of the flight test program — instead accepted an invitation from the Smithsonian to donate the spacecraft to the National Air & Space Museum. SpaceShipOne never flew again.

In any case, Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites had another billionaire to please. Sir Richard Branson had purchased the rights to the technology from Allen. He wanted Rutan to have a much larger successor vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, ready to fly commercially in three years for his Virgin Galactic company.

It took a lot longer than that. SpaceShipTwo didn’t make a powered flight for more than 8.5 years. Commercial flight are nominally expected to begin in 2014. However, rampant rumors of continued problems with the vehicle’s hybrid propulsion system are casting doubt on that schedule.

Blue Origin Suborbital Launch History

#DateVehicleSiteObjectiveResult
05Aug 24, 2011PM 2West TexasFlight TestLoss of Vehicle
04May 06, 2011PM 2West TexasFlight Test
Flight Test
03Apr 19, 2007PM 1West TexasFlight Test
Flight Test
02Mar 22, 2007PM 1West TexasFlight Test
Flight Test
01Nov 13, 2006PM 1West TexasFlight Test
Flight Test

Another billionaire (Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos), another low launch rate. There was a trio of flights in late 2006 and early 2007, and then there is a four-year gap as the company developed an upgraded vehicle. That system flew twice before failing catastrophically nearly two years ago.

Not included on this list is a successful test of the pusher pad escape system for the New Shepard crew capsule on Oct. 19, 2012. The capsule flew to an altitude of 2,307 feet before descending safely under a parachute.

SpaceX Suborbital Launch History

#DateVehicleSiteObjectiveResult
05Jun 14, 2013GrasshopperMcGregorFlight Test: Vertical Takeoff/LandingSuccess
04Apr 19, 2013GrasshopperMcGregorFlight Test: Vertical Takeoff/LandingSuccess
03Mar 07, 2013GrasshopperMcGregorFlight Test: Vertical Takeoff/LandingSuccess
02Dec 17, 2012GrasshopperMcGregorFlight Test: Vertical Takeoff/LandingSuccess
01Nov 01, 2012GrasshopperMcGregorFlight Test: Vertical Takeoff/LandingSuccess

SpaceX has reversed the normal path of companies beginning with suborbital launch vehicles with the intent of eventually going to orbit. The company’s Grasshopper vehicle is a modified Falcon 9 first stage that is designed to test techniques for recovering the booster for reuse during orbital flights.

To date, all five hover tests have been done at the company’s test site in McGregor, Texas. SpaceX has signed an agreement to conduct future tests at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

  • Hug Doug

    well, the economy did collapse in 2008, so prize money for the various competitions and cups dried up. no surprise for the lull in launches there.

  • Jeff Foust

    “This week, the FAA published on its website lists of the 216 licensed and 28 permitted launches the agency has approved since 1989.”

    To clarify, these lists has been on the FAA website for years, and is regularly updated. In fact, some launches have appeared on the lists before being formally acknowledged by the companies performing them: that was the case, for example, with a SpaceX Grasshopper test in March.

    The list does exclude flights that fit within the bounds of the amateur exemption and thus don’t require licenses or permits.