NASA engineer Jerry Budd has an idea so audacious that it might just work—he wants to use unmanned, autonomous gliders to send small, low-cost satellites into orbit.
The Towed Glider Air-Launch is an experimental project (still awaiting government approval) that would fire air-launching rocket boosters from a drone glider. In Budd’s modest words, the proposal offers “affordable, flexible access to space.” A glider would be towed into high altitudes by military transport aircraft on planned flights and would be released by the plane—the glider would then fire a rocket booster (with a satellite enclosed) into orbit. Afterward, pilots located in remote NASA facilities safely guide the glider home.
The space gliders would be used to launch cubesats into orbit. Cubesats are small, low-cost satellites that weigh under 200 pounds and can be built and sent into orbit for low cost. Right now, it costs about $50,000 to build a cubesat and $100,000 to put one in orbit. Budd’s proposal would sharply reduce the cost of sending cubesats into space by allowing specialized drones to handle much of the hard work. Instead of sending cubesats into orbit on Russian rockets, NASA could build a new revenue stream by shipping these small satellites into orbit for other entities—effectively meaning the agency would provide space logistics services.