Special Report: Cheaper By The Rocket

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – If you want to know the history of building rockets, look no further than north Alabama.  We’ve been building them since the early 1950s, and among other things, the most famous rocket put men on the moon.

Now there’s another rocket in the works that promises to be very popular.  But the reason for the popularity may surprise you.

There is plenty of heritage in north Alabama for building new rockets.  The first major rocket developed by the Army at Redstone Arsenal in the early 1950s was the Redstone.

The Redstone contract then was for $24 million.  In today’s money, that contract would be worth $229 million. 

The newest rocket on the drawing board will be far cheaper.

“We’re designing a rocket that will have the price that will be affordable to do the kind of missions we want to do,” said John London with the Space Missile Defense Command, or SMDC.

The new model is called ‘SWORDS’ – and the letters stand for Soldier Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space.

The driver for the project is definitely money, which shouldn’t be a concern for warfighters in a place like Afghanistan.

Cost-cutting is today’s reality. It’s one reason the army developed the small communications satellite.

Each unit will cost less than half a million dollars.  The idea is to get them to space in numbers, so warfighters always have one orbiting overhead. 

Rough terrain would cease to be a problem for communications.

‘If I’ve got a half million dollar satellite that I need to launch, today if I want to launch that satellite, I would have to spend at least $30 million and wait at least 18 months to order that rocket,” said London.

SWORDS solves the problem.   Design and development costs, and a two-year time frame from design to “launch ready” are both far less than for the 60-year-old Redstone.

Still, making a cheaper rocket calls for new thinking.

“I want to get the cheapest launcher I can design, then you have to turn to non-traditional suppliers of hardware,” said London.

For instance, we’re talking about the same parts that are used in the manufacture of automobiles and trucks — parts that make the air-powered, “pneumatic” systems work.

One particular pneumatic valve is produced, in large quantities, for industry.

“And by doing that, the cost of this is probably a tenth or maybe less than for a similar type valve, had we designed it custom through the space industry approach,” said London.

That custom one-of-a-kind approach was used by NASA for complex human-rated rockets like the Saturn V.

NASA’s experience makes the agency a prime contributor to this new Army rocket.  However, using off-the-shelf components is a new idea for both NASA and the Army, and it brings risk.

The Saturn V was designed to have nearly 100 percent reliability.

“So, if I can accept a 95 percent reliability, if I can accept one failure in every 20 launches then I can get a much less expensive rocket,” said London.

The people developing SWORDS don’t expect failure, but if that’s the cost of building a cheaper rocket that can respond quickly to warfighters’ needs, then it’s fine with them.

Some world-renowned rockets have come out of north Alabama in the last 60-plus years.  The developers of SWORDS believe their craft, with its off-the-shelf parts, could  be a whole new chapter in the heritage.

Work on the SWORDS project started in mid-summer of 2012.  The first engine test firings are planned for early next year.  The first sub-orbital flight is scheduled for the spring of 2014.  SWORDS will do a full-fledged flight-to-orbit in the summer of 2014.