Type: two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle
Powerplant: 3 x LOX/kerosene GenCorp Aerojet AJ26-NK33A engines
Significant date: 1995-present
After cancellation of the K-0 program and the falling out with Scaled Composites, Kistler had to reconsider its options and quickly find an efficient way to get its space venture restarted. After the overly ambitious K0-K3 design series, the company finally settled for a comparatively simple and low-risk two-stage-to-orbit vehicle that was mainly going to serve the commercial low earth orbit (LEO) satellite launch market. Outside consultants were brought in and convinced Walt Kistler to drop his initial approach and to replace his original team with one consisting of several well-known former NASA engineers, including Chief Executive Officer George Mueller (former head of the Apollo Moon program) and Technical manager Dietrich Koelle (a German specialist of advanced technology for space transportation).
The new team developed a more conventional design, though still an unmanned two stage system. Probably this transformation was carried out as much for reasons of fund raising as it was to enhance the engineering. A management full of former NASA bigwigs would obviously make a good impression on potential investors. Design of the K-1 evolved rapidly, and late in 1995, Kistler finalized the design of the K-1 and LAP-1 rocketships (to be built in 1996-97), with demonstration flights planned for 1998 and routine orbital operations to begin in 1999. The "flying bedstead" zero stage considered at the start was replaced by a more conventional in-line cylindrical booster.
The K-1 was a a small LOX/hydrogen fuelled, two-stage fully reusable (almost-SSTO) aerospace vehicle that was to be launched on top of a peroxide/kerosene fuelled "zero stage" to modest altitude and airspeed. The zero stage would then do a powered return to and vertical landing at the launch site while the K-1 vehicle continued to orbit and deployed a payload. The K-1 was designed to accommodate a wide range of missions, including payload delivery to low-earth orbit (LEO), payload delivery to high-energy orbits with a K-1 Active Dispenser, technology demonstration flights, microgravity missions, and commercial cargo resupply, recovery, and reboost services for the International Space Station. The K-1 vehicle offered the customer two payload module configurations, the Standard Payload Module (SPM) and the Extended Payload Module (EPM). The payload modules were fabricated out of composite materials and used redundant, high-reliability mechanisms. The payload modules were readily removable from the orbital vehicle. Payload modules were interchangeable to provide maximum flight schedule flexibility.
The K-1 employed off-the-shelf technology and components in its design. The first stage, known as the Launch Assist Platform (LAP), was powered by three LOX/kerosene GenCorp Aerojet AJ26 engines. These engines are U.S. modifications of the fully developed, extensively tested core of the NK-33/NK-43 engines, originally designed for the Soviet lunar program in the 1960s and subsequently placed in storage for over two decades. After launch, the LAP would separate from the second stage and restart its center engine to put the stage on a return trajectory to a landing area near the launch site. The LAP would deploy parachutes and descend to the landing area where air bags would be deployed to cushion its landing. The second stage, or orbital vehicle, would then continue into LEO where it would release its payload. A single Aerojet AJ26-60 engine would power the orbital vehicle. Following payload separation, the orbital vehicle would continue on orbit for approximately 24 hours. Then, a LOX/ethanol Orbital Maneuvering System would perform a deorbit burn. Lastly, the orbital vehicle would end its ballistic reentry profile by deploying parachutes and air bags in a manner similar to the LAP.
Kistler expected to operate the K-1 from two launch sites: Woomera, Australia, and a U.S. domestic launch site. Kistler Woomera Pty., Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of Kistler Aerospace Corporation, was to operate the K-1 from Woomera. Kistler received authorization from the Australian government to begin construction of launch facilities at Woomera in April 1998 and held a groundbreaking ceremony at the site several months later. The launch pad design was complete, and Kistler was to conduct its initial K-1 flights and commercial operations from Woomera. In 1998, Kistler also signed an agreement with the Nevada Test Site Development Corporation to permit Kistler to occupy a segment of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nevada Test Site for its launch operations. The FAA/AST environmental review process was completed for the Kistler project in 2002. In addition, Kistler continued to explore potential U.S. launch and landing sites (subject to regulatory approval), such as at CCAFS, VAFB, and EAFB. Kistler made significant progress in hardware development and component testing, and the first K-1 orbital test flight was supposed to occur from Woomera, Australia in 2000. The K-1 project broke ground on the Woomera launch site, bought up all the NK-33 engines in Russia (AJ26-NK33A), and got about 75% of the vehicle components built using outside contractors such as Northrop and Aerojet.
Unfortunately the booming LEO communications satellite industry collapsed just as Kistler had started to raise hundreds of millions from private investors for the project. The year 2000 was a total disaster for satellite constellation operators. Iridium ceased operation in March 2000 after filing for bankruptcy in August 1999 only nine months after entering commercial service. Their competitors, Globalstar, didn't fare much better and stockholders filed a class action lawsuit against the company for providing misleading financial information. The third soon-to-be operational "big" constellation, ICO, filed bankruptcy in August 1999 but was rescued for a while by Teledesic's investors. In the "Little LEO" market segment, OrbComm filed for US Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on 15 September 2000 two years after entering service. The assets were finally bought by Advanced Communications Technologies on March 8, 2001. The two broadband LEO constellations (Skybridge, Teledesic) announced their first 90 satellites would be delayed, which in turn caused significant financial problems for Boeing/Delta Launch Systems and other commercial launch providers.
The Iridium/Globalstar/ICO failures occurred and investors stopped providing funding because the target market in delivering replacement satellites for these constellations had vanished. Work was finally suspended in late 1998 after about 80% of the first launch vehicle had been completed. Fortunately, Kistler (a small company that only has 50 permanent employees) had outsourced most of the work to other contractors so that it did not have to keep a large and expensive "standing army" or factories, equipment etc. while trying to raise additional capital. Since then the company would occasionally announce that it had found new funding and would soon restart development of the vehicle but then nothing would happen. They did win an SLI grant of $135 million for developing the K-1 for Space Station cargo delivery but most of this money would only appear after the company got the vehicle built and flying on its own. After the cancellation of the X-33, X-34 projects, one would often hear statements from NASA and various mainstream aerospace officials claiming that fully reusable launch vehicles were decades and tens of billions of dollars away (of course Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne has since then proved them wrong).
Kistler listed its main advantages as high reliability, low cost, rapid response capability and flexible scheduling. The first two claims appeared to be exaggerated, however, since most payloads apparently could not be recovered intact if the vehicle failed to reach orbit and the K-1 appeared to be no safer than ordinary expendable launch vehicles (e.g. no engine-out capability). Besides, the K-1 was actually only marginally cost effective on a cost/kg payload basis for launching unmanned satellites. The K-1 did seem more attractive for smallsat missions since most small expendable launch vehicles are extremely expensive. Still, Kistler would have to face stiff competition for the launch dollar from the existing Russian Kosmos & Rockot boosters, who had already captured the "Small LEO" constellation deployment market. However, the K-1 did show some dramatic improvement for missions to low altitude, inclination orbits since the payload capability tapered off more quickly than for most expendable launch vehicles. This means users who were satisfied with, say, a 400km 52 degree orbit only would have to pay 1/3 as much as for a ride to an 800km polar orbit, since the K-1 could carry a three times bigger payload. Still, Kistler would have to deliver on its promises regarding rapid response and flexible scheduling to stand a chance.
Kistler's strong suit appears to be "nonstandard" government missions such as International Space Station resupply, recoverable microgravity flights and perhaps some rapid-deployment military payloads as well. Whether the U.S. government is prepared to sign up as a sufficiently credible "anchor tenant" is of course debatable, but Kistler clearly needs a strong commitment from NASA & USAF to convince investors to pay another ~$300-500 million to complete the K-1 research & development effort. In return, the company could provide similar incentives as planned for its commercial launch agreements (flexible scheduling, launch on demand etc.) if the government agreed to drop its cumbersome Federal Acquisition Regulation practices and simply buy commercial services instead.
In July 2003, a "dozen NASA officials" visited Kistler's headquarters in Kirkland, Washington, to hear the company's proposal for flying the K-1 as a cargo delivery system to the ISS. The company did not ask for direct funding but instead asked that NASA give a firm commitment to exercise its options to purchase the flight data for 12 missions under the SLI contract made with Kistler in 2001. With such a committment, the company believed it could raise the money to finish the K-1, which was 75% complete, and begin flying 12 to 18 months from the time it received the money. Yet nothing came of this project, and In 2003, Kistler filed to reorganize under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.
According to an in-depth analysis from the HobbySpace site, Kistler eventually failed to attract more support to its project for several reasons: "There's resentment that Kistler absorbed most of the capital available for private space projects in the late 1990s and still didn't get anything flying. Other orbital projects such as Pioneer Rocketplane, Kelly Space, and Rotary, which needed $200 to $300 million dollars, found little money left for their projects". Moreover, the K-1 was unmanned, Kistler had no interest in making the vehicle "manrated", and therefore the company "could not serve a space tourist market that looks to be the one market that can drive high launch rates and really bring down costs". Among other reasons listed was the company's low profile attitude, notably in refusing interviews: "Instead of loudly promoting the K-1 as a cargo carrier for the Space Station in the aftermath of Columbia when everyone was discussing options, Kistler has remained quiet and uninvolved. (...) Unless something dramatic happens during the Chapter 11 restructuring and new funding is finally found to complete the vehicle, it will just be sold for scrap and an opportunity will be lost."
Kistler Aerospace Corporation is now in the final stages of the reorganization process, and plans to emerge from Chapter 11 and restart the K-1 program in 2005. The company certainly deserves praise for having managed to raise hundreds of millions of private capital to build a high risk reusable launch vehicle. Whether the K-1 will make sense as an commercial investment opportunity is unclear—Kistler probably needs to sell 40-50 flights/year on average to recover the $800M+ initial investment—but it appears launch customers all over the world might personally benefit from giving the company a chance... A properly structured procurement contract could be a low-risk investment to the United States government, and most "non-critical" small/medium-class NASA & USAF payloads would appear to be well suited for the K-1. The commercial attractiveness to potential investors might also be enhanced if the founders of the company simply would write off the ~$500 million already spent as a total loss. This means the K-1 only has to pay back the final $300 million or so required to complete the development program. Consequently, the project could be "profitable" even with lower flight rates since the profit margin per flight (launch price divided by the marginal cost to Kistler) is going to be higher than for expendable launch vehicles.
Population: 1 (almost completed)
NOTE: all figures below as of March 1996
Payload of combined system (K-1 inside LAP-1 framework — K-1 being
just the center portion):