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Low-Cost Propellant Launch to Earth Orbit from a Tethered BalloonPropellant will be more than 85% of the mass that needs to be lofted into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in the planned program of Exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond. This paper describes a possible means for launching thousands of tons of propellant per year into LEO at a cost 15 to 30 times less than the current launch cost per kilogram. The basic idea is to mass-produce very simple, small and relatively low-performance rockets at a cost per kilogram comparable to automobiles, instead of the ~25X greater cost that is customary for current launch vehicles that are produced in small quantities and which are manufactured with performance near the limits of what is possible. These small, simple rockets can reach orbit because they are launched above ~95% of the atmosphere, where the drag losses even on a small rocket are acceptable, and because they can be launched nearly horizontally with very simple guidance based primarily on spin-stabilization. Launching above most of the atmosphere is accomplished by winching the rocket up a tether to a balloon. A fuel depot in equatorial orbit passes over the launch site on every orbit (approximately every 90 minutes). One or more rockets can be launched each time the fuel depot passes overhead, so the launch rate can be any multiple of 6000 small rockets per year, a number that is sufficient to reap the benefits of mass production.
Document ID
Document Type
Conference Paper
External Source(s)
Wilcox, Brian H. (Jet Propulsion Lab., California Inst. of Tech. Pasadena, CA, United States)
Date Acquired
August 24, 2013
Publication Date
March 4, 2006
Subject Category
Launch Vehicles and Launch Operations
Meeting Information
IEEE Aerospace Conference(Big Sky, MT)
Distribution Limits
Earth orbits
tethered balloons