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Step forward

Kistler Aerospace's fully re-usable K-1 launch vehicle will be flight tested from Nevada, USA, or Woomera, South Australia, as early as July 1998. This is the first step towards offering a 4,500kg satellite-delivery service to low- and medium-Earth orbit (LEO/MEO), costing $17 million a time (Flight International, 23-29 October, 1996).

The Kistler company, based in Kirkland, near Seattle, Washington, has assembled an impressive collection of veteran space executives and made a commitment to use 76 Russian rocket engines to power its fleet of boosters. The company is headed by George Muller, a former head of the NASA manned-spaceflight programme.

He is assisted by his NASA contemporaries Aaron Cohen and Dale Myers. Executive vice-president is former Shuttle commander and astronaut chief Dan Brandenstein, whose contemporary, Richard Kohrs, former Space Shuttle deputy director, is chief engineer.

The Russian engines which will power the K-1 are the NK-33 and NK-43 built by the Kuznetsov company in Samara, Russia. They were originally built for the ill-fated N-1 mega-booster of the former Soviet Union's unsuccessful manned-lunar-landing programme.

Thirty NK-33s were used on the first stage of the N1 and eight on stage 2. The N1 suffered four spectacular failures in 1969-72. Production of the engines ceased in 1974, but 70 acceptance-tested units have been kept in protective storage near the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakstan, for more than 20 years. Components for 32 more are available.

In June 1993, Gen Corp Aerojet, of Sacramento, California, and Kuznetsov announced a teaming arrangement offering NK-33s to the West for $4 million each. Two engines were imported by the USA in June 1995, and one was test-fired five times by Aerojet for a total of 410s.

Forty-six engines have already been delivered to Aerojet, which may purchase all 70 NK-33s and 18 NK-43s. Kistler will use 58 of the NK-33s and all of the 18 NK-43s: the remaining 12 NK-33s will be used on other projects.

Kistler has yet to award a launch-vehicle-structures manufacturing contract and will need to raise fully the $500 million development costs. In February, the company said that it had raised $10 million and it has been reported that that figure is now $100 million. Some of the money, Kistler hopes, will come from contractors. Its plans call for three operational K-1 launchers and two test vehicles to be built.

perceived market

The K-1 is aimed mainly at the perceived market for the launch of mobile communications satellites, such as the Globalstar craft, which are built and operated by Space Systems Loral and its partners. This market could be for as many as 1,000 spacecraft. worth $10 billion, to be orbited by 2007, of which about 80% will involve LEO and MEO launches.

Loral has awarded Kistler a $100 million contract to launch Globalstar satellites on ten launches between 1999 and 2002. Kistler will compete with Boeing and Russia's Khrunichev, whose Delta 2 and Proton K vehicles have already demonstrated their lead in the market, launching 38 similar Iridium satellites for Motorola. Boeing charges $50 million per Delta 2 launch and is heavily engaged in NASA launch work, for which Kistler will also tender.

The 35m K-1 will weigh 285.8t at lift-off, and will be powered by three 1,510kN (340,000lb) thrust NK-33 liquid-oxygen and kerosene engines. It will be 6.7m wide at the base. At burn-out (at T+121s, an altitude of about 36,000m and 40km downrange) the second stage will be separated and its single, 1,1757kN NK-43 engine fired to take it into transfer orbit.

Meanwhile, one of the first stage's NK-33s will have been re-ignited for a 24-44s retro-burn starting at T+130s, allowing the stage to make a six-parachute landing, with the aid of inflatable airbags, to touch down about 5km from the launch pad, up to 10min after launch.

Two 270kg-thrust Aerojet orbital manoeuvring system (OMS) liquid oxygen-alcohol engines will raise the second-stage orbit slightly for satellite deployment at T+2hr. The satellite will be deployed from the K-1's nose-cone, which will not be ejected.

The top portion of the nose-cone is a hatch, which opens to allow the payload to be deployed, and is closed again to form a part of the critical heatshield to protect the stage during re-entry before its recovery. The payload weight for a deployment at a MEO altitude of 800km would be 2,590kg compared with the full 4,500kg capability for a lower, less-inclined, orbit.

The OMS engines will be used to pitch the stage over and with retrofire to bring it out of orbit, allowing this stage, protected by its heatshield surface, also to be recovered at the launch site after a similar parachute/landing-bag procedure. The parachute and airbag contractor is Irvin Industries, of Santa Ana, California.

The stages and engines will be refurbished for re-use, with a 14-day turnaround planned. With three operational vehicles, this will allow a possible launch every three to four days, with a planned vehicle life of 100 flights.

The launch-landing site has not been decided, but ostensibly will be Woomera, or the Nevada Test Range in Nye County. Woomera looks favourite, mainly because Kistler fears that the US Department of Transportation (DoT) will drag its heels over fears about the environmental impact of flying overland from Nevada.

Aerojet is likely to build launch pads at both sites for Kistler, pending a DoT decision, with Woomera possibly being used first. Kistler has already established an Australian subsidiary company to run its Woomera operations. Original plans for sub-orbital test flights have already been scrapped in favour of up to six orbital test launches by the K-1.

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