Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology

Kelly Space & Technology, Inc. (KST) has developed patented technologies for the world’s only tow launch system known as the EXPRESS Spaceplane (also referred to as the Astroliner). The EXPRESS Spaceplane is composed primarily of off-the-shelf and flight-proven components, with a clear objective that no new technology developments are needed, thereby, minimizing technical risk.

KST developed and demonstrated the first phase of its tow launch system in cooperation with NASA Dryden Flight Research Center and the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The tow-launch demonstrations involved a series of air-tows of the QF-106 interceptor behind a C-141 aircraft to altitudes of up to 25,000 feet. The EXPRESS vehicle system is sufficiently robust to target a range of market applications such as space tourism.

The EXPRESS combines the integration of mature technologies with standard practices from both the aerospace and aircraft industries. This results in a reusable launch vehicle (RLV), with large performance margins and low risk characteristics. The EXPRESS system uses a manned air launched vehicle consisting of a reusable, fly-back winged vehicle.

The key to the advantage offered by the EXPRESS is its method of launch. The EXPRESS is towed from a runway to the launch point as a glider, using a tow aircraft such as the Boeing 747. The KST patented tow-launch technology provides performance margins that allow major portions of the system to be made reusable, which results in the optimum trade between operational costs and development costs and risks. The largest and most costly segments of the system (tow aircraft and space vehicle) are reusable. Each major element of the launch system is optimized for its flight environment. The EXPRESS, coupled with the tow aircraft, is designed for efficient low-altitude, subsonic performance, while the EXPRESS itself is designed for efficient operation in the thinner atmosphere at supersonic and hypersonic flight regimes.

Watch an animation illustrating the Astroliner

Testing of the QF-106 behind its C-141A tow vehicle. Click here to see the flash.

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