Low Cost Technologies
If the United States is to open the space frontier for commercial opportunities and exploration, the cost of launching spacecraft to Earth orbit and beyond must be reduced. Space endeavors of the future will depend on transportation systems that are less expensive, highly reusable and efficient.
Low-cost space launch is a major goal NASA must achieve early in the 21st century. One of NASA's new initiatives - the Low Cost Technologies Project - is searching for solutions to dramatically reduce the cost of access to space, specifically for small payloads.
But the search for these solutions isn't confined to aerospace industry giants as it typically has been in the past. Instead, the Low Cost Technologies effort is turning to small businesses - not traditionally associated with aerospace - as well as traditional aerospace industry for fresh ideas and innovative approaches to develop a new low-cost launch system for small payloads.
Common manufacturing techniques and existing commercial, off-the-shelf hardware are being adapted to aerospace applications. For example, some small U.S. businesses that traditionally make components for medical and automotive industries are modifying their hardware and manufacturing methods for use in space transportation. This approach to developing a new launch system saves millions of dollars that would otherwise be required to set up unique manufacturing and assembly lines.
Bantam Launch System
The Bantam System Technology Project, which is part of the Low Cost Technologies effort, teams NASA and its business partners to research and demonstrate technologies for a new low-cost launch system. A technology demonstration flight is targeted for late 1999.
The resulting launch vehicle would be capable of placing a payload weighing approximately 400 pounds in orbit for as low as $1.5 million. Today, that same 400-pound payload costs about $8 million - or nearly $20,000 per pound - to launch with current vehicles.
The new launch system resulting from the Bantam System Technology Project will focus on small experimental payloads that typically are not funded due simply to the expense of launch. This activity could greatly increase the amount of research performed in space. Small payloads such as communication satellites and other commercial ventures in space also will benefit from equivalent inexpensive access to space.
In addition to developing components and vehicle concepts, businesses will analyze the payload market and develop a business plan that ultimately results in commercial operation of the launch system.
The Low Cost Technologies Project is one element of the Advanced Space Transportation Program - a NASA initiative to reduce the cost of space launch and develop technologies for space transportation needs for the next 25 years. The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., serves as NASA's Lead Center for Space Transportation Systems Development.