Given that it was successfully tested as far back as 1952, should private aerospace firms be considering using “rockoons” as an economical way to launch payloads into Earth orbit?
By: Ringo Bones
As far back as the end of World War II, every well-informed rocketeer / aerospace engineer knows that it takes 100-lb. of fuel to put 1-lb. of payload into Earth orbit. And rocket fuel didn’t get any cheaper since the years when the U.S. government desperately wants to send the first artificial satellite into orbit. Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st Century where it is now economically viable for privately-owned aerospace firms to play the role as contractors to send payloads to earth orbit – as into the International Space Station – in an economically viable manner. Does this mean that “aerospace contractors” should be considering a technique from the 1950s to “cheaply” launch payloads into Earth orbit via “rockoons” or balloon-born rockets?
Back in the early 1950s where the U.S. government was very desperate to beat the then Soviet Union to be the first to launch the first artificial satellite, various payload launching techniques from the whimsical to the sublime, were considered. Among the many experimental rocket techniques tried by the scientists who worked at White Sands at the time was the adaptation of a proposal long discussed by rocket pioneers but never before tested. Dr. James A. Van Allen revived the idea and proposed for actually testing it. Dr. Van Allen proposed using a balloon to carry a rocket – or a rocket-type launch vehicle – into the thin upper atmosphere, and launching the missile from there. A rocket so fired would be spared the difficult flight through the dense part of the atmosphere, and would therefore achieve a much greater altitude. Dr. Van Allen assigned the name “rockoon” to this device.
Then in 1952, a test launch was performed that performed extremely well and scaled-up rockets up to 13 feet long were launched in this fashion. In fact it was so successful that for a time scientists seriously considered using balloons to carry large three-stage rockets aloft for the purpose of putting a satellite into orbit. By 1955, tenured “rocketeers” even proposed a rockoon system that carried a 13,500-pound rocket to 15 miles via balloon before firing the first-stage engines. The first stage would drive the payload to 20 miles, the second to 200 and the third would put a 30-pound payload into orbit. Sadly, the idea was dropped when better rocket boosters were developed several years later. But does this mean that the concept is flawed form an economic standpoint?
The two most iconic aircraft of historical significance in the annals of aviation were carried to the upper atmosphere to lessen their burden of achieving the speed records they are pursuing. The first aircraft to break the sound barrier – the Bell X-1 – was dropped from a B-29 mother ship at 35, 000-feet before it can achieve the feat of flying faster than the speed of sound; as with the X-15 which was carried to 35,000 feet by its B-52 mother ship to 35,000 feet before it can achieve a speed record of flying six times the speed of sound. So launching rocket-propelled payloads from the vantage point of the upper atmosphere does make sense from both an engineering and economical standpoint.