When rocket boosters propel a vehicle into space, it usually is a one-time deal. Parts of a launch system burn up, fall into the ocean or remain in an orbital graveyard never to be used again.
The Air Force, though, wants a booster that can “rocket-back” and return to the launch site, landing itself like an airplane on a strip.
The Reusable Booster System (RBS) would replace costly expendable launchers. The Air Force Research Laboratory and the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center have awarded contracts to Andrews Space, Boeing and Lockheed Martin to define requirements and design concepts for a demonstration vehicle called the RBS Pathfinder. The three teams also will compete to build the vehicle and conduct a flight test.
NASA has been reusing two solid rocket boosters for space shuttle launches. After burning for about two minutes, the boosters parachute into the ocean where special boats retrieve them so they can be used again. But it can be expensive to maintain smaller launch vehicles in this manner, officials said.
NASA also is investigating the use of “fly-back” boosters that would use commercial or military jet engines capable of providing 100,000 pounds of thrust. GE Aircraft Engines has been tapped to study the concept with NASA.