HISTORY OF OCEANIC ROCKETRY
Oceanic launch systems have been in development for the past 55 years, with over 120 successful test flights of varying design. Their origins began in 1961 when NASA commissioned a study for development of a heavy lift successor to the Apollo rockets that could satisfy the heavy lift demands for Lunar and Mars missions. Captain Robert Traux advanced the idea of launching a rocket directly from the ocean.
Oceanic launches would eliminate the need for fixed land-based launch facilities, support more flexible rocket designs, and enable equatorial launches, which reduces thrust requirements. His design was dubbed the Sea Dragon, which is still the largest rocket ever designed, capable of delivering 550mT into LEO at less than $60 per kg (2016 adjusted). This two stage rocket, with a recoverable first stage, was to be towed out to sea via aircraft carrier where it would be fueled on site and launched directly from the ocean on the equator.
Funding to develop this concept was provided by NASA in partnership with Aerojet and they jointly established the Sea Bee program, a proof of principle program to validate the Sea Dragon concept. The testing program – including a launch in restrained mode and tests for readying the unit for repeat firings proved highly successful. The cost for turn-around reuse of the rocket was found to be just 7% of the cost for a new unit.
The Sea Bee program was followed by the Sea Horse program, with the specific goal of launching from the ocean a medium-lift rocket capable of delivering 2mT into LEO. The program used modified US Corporal missiles, which successfully performed ballast system and static testing in the ocean. Sea Horse proved the ability to fire submerged rocket engines. Prior to development of the medium-lift rocket, the decision was made to initiate the Excalibur program, designed and managed by Robert Traux and his firm, Traux Engineering and funded by the US Navy. Excalibur was a subscale version of Sea Dragon and featured many similar attributes: low cost design (pressure fed engines), LOx/Kerosene first stage (combustion chamber pressure 24 atmospheres) and LOx/LH2 second stage (chamber pressure 5 atmospheres). Guidance would be by a combined Inertial/GPS system. However, funding for the program was cut and eventually eliminated in the late 1990’s due to financial constraints.
Oceanic rocketry development resumed with the proposed Leviathan project, led by 62 NASA rocket scientists in 2011. The next generation NASA heavy lift rocket, Leviathan was an oceanic rocket capable of delivering 140mT into LEO at a cost of less than $500 per kg, based off Sea Dragon designs. However, after initial efforts, NASA decided to continue to focus on land-launched rockets and chose the Space Launch System as its next generation future heavy rocket.
In addition to publicly funded programs to develop oceanic launch systems, there have been some 20+ privately funded programs to develop an oceanic rocket since the 1960’s. Many of these programs performed successful test flights on a variety of light, medium and heavy lift rockets.
Now in 2016, Ripple Aerospace is building off this established and tested technology to bring to market the first commercial oceanic launch system to reduce the challenges and costs of space transportation.