Space Launch Vehicles

Between the first space launch in 1957 and the end of 1998 approximately 4102 space launch attempts have taken place in the world and all but about 129 were successful (see Ref. 1-17). Space launch vehicles or space boosters can be classified broadly as expendable or recoverable/reusable. Other bases of classification are the type of propellant (storable or cryogenic liquid or solid propellants), number of stages (single-stage, two-stage, etc.), size/mass of pay-loads or vehicles, and manned or unmanned. Figure 1-12 shows the Titan III-C space launch vehicle, one member of the Titan family of storable propellant space launch vehicles, which is used extensively for boosting satellites into synchronous earth orbit or into escape trajectories for planetary travel. This heavy-duty launch vehicle consists of the basic 2-stage Titan III standard launch vehicle (liquid propellant rockets) supplemented by two solid propellant "strap-on motors." A fourth stage, known as the transtage, permits a wide variety of maneuvers, orbit changes, and trajectory transfers to be accomplished with the payload, which can be one or more satellites or spacecraft.

Each space launch vehicle has a specific space flight objective, such as an earth orbit or a moon landing. It uses between two and five stages, each with its own propulsion system, and each is usually fired sequentially after the lower stage is expended. The number of stages depends on the specific space trajectory, the number and types of maneuvers, the energy content of a unit mass of

FIGURE 1-12. Titan III launch vehicle shortly after lift-off, with bright radiant exhaust gas. Two solid propellant rocket motors, each providing about 2.4 million pounds of thrust, boost the first stage, which also gets a sustained thrust of 470,000 pounds from two liquid rocket engines. The second stage has 100,000 pounds of thrust from a single liquid rocket engine, and one version of the third stage has two liquid rocket engines, each at 16,000 pounds of thrust.

the propellant, and other factors. The initial stage, usually called the booster stage, is the largest and it is operated first; this stage is then separated from the ascending vehicle before the second-stage rocket propulsion system is ignited and operated. As will be explained in Chapter 4, adding an extra stage permits a significant increase in the payload (such as more scientific instruments or more communications gear).

Each stage of a multistage launch vehicle is essentially a complete vehicle in itself and carries its own propellant, its own rocket propulsion system or systems, and its own control system. Once the propellant of a given stage is expended, the dead mass of that stage (including empty tanks, cases, instruments, etc.) is no longer useful in providing additional kinetic energy to the succeeding stages. By dropping off this useless mass it is possible to accelerate the final stage with its useful payload to a higher terminal velocity than would be attained if multiple staging were not used. Both solid propellant and liquid propellant rocket propulsion systems have been used for low earth orbits.

A single stage to orbit vehicle, attractive because it avoids the costs and complexities of staging, is expected to have improved reliability (simple structures, fewer components), and some versions may be recoverable and reusable. However, its payload is relatively very small. A low earth orbit (say 100 miles altitude) can only be achieved with such a vehicle if the propellant performance is very high and the structure is efficient and low in mass. Liquid propellants such as liquid hydrogen with liquid oxygen are usually chosen.

The missions and payloads for space launch vehicles are many, such as military (reconnaissance satellites, command and control satellites), non-military government (weather observation satellites, GPS or geopositioning satellites), space exploration (space environment, planetary missions), or commercial (communication satellites). Forecasts indicate that a large number of future commercial communications satellites will be needed.

Table 1-3 lists several important U.S. launch vehicles and their capabilities and Table 1-4 gives data on the Space Shuttle, which is really a combination of launch vehicle, spacecraft, and a glider. It can be seen that the thrust levels are highest for booster or first stages and are relatively high for upper stages (thousands of pounds). Only for the attitude control system of the vehicle (also called reaction control in Table 1-4) are the thrust levels low (from a fraction of a pound for small spacecraft to as high as about 1000 pounds thrust in the space shuttle vehicle). Frequent propulsion starts and stops are usually required in these applications.

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