Motorcycle messengers to outer space

A small private company is getting ready to deliver packages to the final frontier. Peter Bond reports
Next week should see the culmination of one of the most prolonged sagas in space history when a Conestoga rocket blasts off from Wallops Island, Virginia. It will not have the drama or the attendant high publicity of a Nasa space shuttle launch, but it may be more significant in the long run than any shuttle mission.

Over the past half-century, the creeks and mudflats of eastern Virginia have reverberated with the sound of rocket launches thousands of times. The difference is that this is the first private-enterprise, commercial space launch in the US, from the purpose-built launch pad to the privately financed and developed rocket and payload.

Installed in the nose of the rocket will be a small scientific satellite known as Meteor (Multiple Experiment Transporter to Earth Orbit). Nine and a half minutes after launch, the spacecraft will be deployed 200 miles (320km) above the earth into an orbit that carries it 40 degrees north and south of the equator.

The driving force behind this enterprise is a small Maryland-based company called EER Systems. Its faith and financial commitment to the project ensured that Meteor would not flop. During the early Nineties, the mission seemed secure when Nasa's Office of Commercial Programmes invested $85m (pounds 55m) in the project (then known as Comet - Commercial Experiment Transporter). However, when a succession of financial and technical problems caused the government agency to pull out, it looked as though the mission would never leave the ground.

Despite doubts and delays, EER's spokesman, Mike Bryant, is upbeat about Meteor's prospects. "We look at it as a complete space transportation system, the first of its kind made available in America," he says. "We can provide a service to Nasa no different to them contracting with Federal Express to send packages into space - particularly small, experimental packages that need longer time in space than a shuttle flight and don't need to be crew-tended."

One important EER investment has been the building of the Conestoga Launch Complex at Wallops Field, America's first launch facility designed primarily for commercial missions. It consists of a portable service tower, a vertical launch mount and a concrete launch pad.

The most innovative aspect of the mission is the payload, a dual spacecraft comprising an orbiter and a return capsule. Satellites equipped with recoverable capsules have been used many times by the former Soviet Union and by China, but they have largely been ignored in the West - an oversight that Meteor's designers intend to rectify.

Both sections of the one-ton spacecraft have been designed and built by small private companies. The largest section is the service module, now bought by EER, which controls temperature, altitude, power generation, telemetry and data processing. Its unpressurised interior can also be packed with scientific experiments, allowing it to operate as an independent space laboratory. Its designers expect the module to transmit a stream of experimental data to scientists on the ground for one to two years. Eventually, its orbit will decay, causing the craft to burn up during re-entry.

The recovery module can carry up to 300lb (135kg) of experiments inside a pressurised cylindrical container. After orbiting Earth for about a month, it will separate from the service module for the return to Earth. Protected by a heat shield, it will plunge into the atmosphere until, at about 60,000ft, air-pressure monitors ("barometric switches") will turn on the recovery sequence.

A drogue parachute, followed by a 60ft- diameter main chute, will unfurl to allow the capsule to plop gently into the Atlantic Ocean 100 miles east of the launch site. If all goes to plan, a Coast Guard cutter will locate the module before calling in a Navy recovery helicopter. Within six hours of splashdown, the completed experiments should be delivered to their owners back at Wallops Field.

Eight of the experiments are being sponsored by Nasa - five in the recovery module and three in the service module. One of these is an enclosed chamber that can sustain plants for a long period of time. Another involves an automated miniature laboratory that can process samples used in cancer research and other biomedical studies. Some of these microgravity investigations have been provided by the agency's Centres for the Commercial Development of Space, non-profit consortia consisting of industry, higher education and governments, set up to conduct hi-tech research. The remaining three payloads are purely commercial. They include an experimental solar power system, samples of different materials exposed to atomic oxygen in space, and a secret payload provided by Motorola.

EER is launching its Conestoga 1620 rocket at a time when several US manufacturers are competing for a slice of the newly emerging launch market for small satellites. But not only are their prices being undercut by decommissioned American and Russian ballistic missiles, their position has been further undermined by several launch mishaps in recent months.

On 22 June, the air-launched Pegasus-XI booster flopped for the second time in two launches. The result was the loss of an experimental US Air Force satellite and a lengthening launch queue, including four Nasa scientific satellites. Two months later, the maiden flight of the Lockheed Launch Vehicle came to an undignified end when it had to be destroyed following a booster failure. The manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, is hoping to get back on track by next June for the launch of two more innovative Nasa "smallsats" known as Lewis and Clark.

So far, the Conestoga has not been able to take advantage of this hiatus. A launch attempt on 13 August ended as a damp squib when two motors lost pressure, causing the countdown to be scrubbed with 90 seconds remaining. Like its competitors, the Conestoga relies on solid rocket motors built by the Thiokol Corporation. However, according to Mike Bryant, the Conestoga is more modular, and so more flexible, than its competitors. Various combinations of solid boosters can be assembled to carry different sizes of payload to low-Earth orbit. EER is promoting an entire family of Conestogas, ranging from the baby, which can lift 226kg, to the big daddy, capable of carrying more than two tons. The company is hoping a successful launch by the medium-lift 1620 version, which has seven strap-on boosters, will promote the advantages of the entire family.

So will Meteor become, as its name unfortunately suggests, a short-lived arrival on the commercial space scene that crashes and burns after just one flight? Or will it provide the flexible, low-cost microgravity missions that have so far been denied to small companies and academic institutions? The key will be how much commercial business the consortium can drum up in the months ahead. "We have a number of solid leads, and most of these are waiting to see how the vehicle performs," says EER's vice president, Jim Hengle.