Burning Rubber


It was to be one small hop for a rocket, one giant leap for private space transportation.

After taking off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Koopman Express would ascend to an altitude of 120 miles and proceed west, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean about 150 miles from California's coast. The entire suborbital flight, scheduled for late September, was expected to last about 15 minutes, but it would demonstrate the effectiveness of the first commercially developed vehicle ever launched into space.

The 58-foot, 16-ton rocket was designed and produced by the American Rocket Co., a 4-year-old firm based in Camarillo, California, entirely without government subsidy. It was named for AMROC founder George A. Koopman, who died in a car accident two months before the scheduled launch. Koopman dreamed of providing reliable, low-cost launch services to customers frustrated by the expense and delay associated with public-sector operations such as NASA and the European Space Agency. He wanted AMROC to be "the Federal Express of space transportation." Since none of the existing launch systems was up to the task, AMROC had to design its own rocket.

In contrast with the rockets produced under government space and defense programs, the AMROC launcher had to be cost-effective. "Our concept is to build it simple and build it cheap," says AMROC engineer Paul Estey. The result is a hybrid rocket producing 75,000 pounds of thrust, powered by a combination of liquid oxygen and synthetic rubber. Unlike rockets that run exclusively on solid or liquid fuel, the AMROC launcher can be stopped and started; the design prevents explosions and uncontrolled burning. The launcher's propellants are nontoxic, and its exhaust—which consists chiefly of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and water—is safer than emissions from most other rockets.

Not incidentally, the hybrid rocket is cheap enough to produce that AMROC expects to launch payloads for one-third the price charged by government-supported operations. Launchers are assembled virtually from scratch, so the company has extensive control over costs. After three years and $30 million of research and development, AMROC is geared up to produce rockets assembly-line style—about 100 a year eventually.

The company has already attracted its first two customers. The Koopman Express was to carry an undisclosed Strategic Defense Initiative experiment and the prototype of a "para-shield" for re-entry vehicles developed at MIT.

In addition to the suborbital rocket, which provides up to 10 minutes of weightlessness for experiments, AMROC intends to offer multiple-motor launchers capable of carrying satellites into low earth orbit. Company president James C. Bennett says the first of the larger rockets, which can carry payloads of up to 4,000 pounds, will be launched about six months after customers are signed up.

Still dependent on government launch sites such as Vandenberg, AMROC would like to see a completely private transportation system. Bennett points to the Koopman Express as evidence that the launch business can be disentangled from government. "This is the beginning of the commercial space transportation industry," he says, "and I expect it to go on forever."