A Washington state-based aerospace company has gone out of stealth mode by announcing plans to develop one of the holy grails of spaceflight: an orbiting single-stage spaceplane. Radian Aerospace said it was deeply committed to designing an aircraft-like vehicle that could take off from a runway, ignite its rocket engines, spend time in orbit, then return to Earth and land on a runway. .
“We all understand how difficult it is,” said Livingston Holder, co-founder of Radian, chief technology officer and former Future Space Transportation and X-33 program manager at Boeing.
On Wednesday, Radian announced that it had recently closed a $27.5 million seed funding round, led by Fine Structure Ventures. To date, Radian has raised approximately $32 million and has 18 full-time employees at its headquarters in Renton, Washington.
In an interview with Ars, Holder and Radian CEO Richard Humphrey explained that they realized that it would take a lot more funding to build such an ambitious orbital spaceplane. The funding will accelerate their development efforts. For that reason, Humphrey said he was not comfortable setting a date for the company’s first test flights, but said Radian aimed to have operational capability well before the end of the years. 2020.
The current Radian One design calls for carrying up to five people and 5,000 pounds of cargo into orbit. The vehicle would have a down weight capacity of approximately 10,000 pounds and would be powered by three liquid fuel engines. The idea would be to get as close to flight operations as possible, flying, landing, refueling and flying again.
Since its inception in 2016, Radian has focused on the propulsion and structure of a vehicle that must withstand a variety of thermal and pressure environments. Humphrey said the company had built and tested its first “full-scale” engine. At full power, this cryogenic fueled engine will have a thrust of approximately 200,000 pounds.
“We’re still on the cutting edge of this work,” Humphrey said. “We understand the fundamentals, we can start it, we can stop it, and we’re taking a series of small incremental steps to reach full capacity.”
Humphrey, Holder and fellow company co-founders Curtis Gifford and Jeff Feige have a variety of experiences at NASA, the US Department of Defense and various new space companies. They plan to build on previous work from NASA and contractors who have previously tried to develop a single-stage orbiting spacecraft as well as XCOR, which was looking to build a suborbital spaceplane but had to shut down a while ago. is about five years old due to a lack of funding.
NASA’s last serious attempt to build such a spaceplane dates back to the late 1990s, with its “Reusable Launch Vehicle Program”, which led to the X-33 program. NASA eventually chose a Lockheed Martin design for the X-33, but that program fell through in 2001 when Lockheed and NASA ran into technical problems and NASA’s priorities changed.
Much has changed over the past two decades to make private development of such a vehicle more feasible, Humphrey said. Lightweight aerospace composites were then mostly experimental, but are now a well understood technology. Space launchers regularly “superchill” their liquid propellants to gain performance during flight, which Radian plans to do.
And perhaps most importantly, following SpaceX’s success with its launch program, there is more and more private capital flowing into spaceflight operations. That means it should be easier for Radian to raise the substantial sums of money he’ll need to get an orbital spaceplane into service – over $1 billion, almost certainly – than he would have. done five or ten years ago.
“A lot of time has passed since the last real attempt,” Holder said. “Technology has advanced and people are willing to fund projects like this.”
If Radian can succeed technologically, large markets will likely open up. A vehicle like Radian One would be well suited to transport people to commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, which NASA seeks to foster development by 2030. These planes could also perform Earth observation work and play a role in the return of space products. . There is also potential for point-to-point travel on Earth.
There is no doubt that this is an extremely difficult undertaking that many people have already tried. Will Radian find the right material, at the right time? We would like to think so.
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