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September 21, 2010

John Hunter of Quicklaunch is interviewed by Sander Olson

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Here is the John Hunter of Quicklaunch interview by Sander Olson. Mr. Hunter is the Director of the Quicklaunch company, which is hoping to create a method for launching unmanned payloads into orbit for $500 per pound. The Quicklaunch approach shoots payloads into orbit using a large hydrogen powered cannon.

Question: When did you first come up with the concept of the QuickLaunch?
Answer: I initially came up with the concept of launching satellites into orbit using hydrogen gas in the 1980s. I worked on the concept throughout the 1990s when I worked at Lawrence Livermore lab and by 2001 I and some coworkers were ready to found a company. But 9/11 happened and so we worked on defense issues for several years. We picked the concept up again in 2007.



Question: What are the primary benefits of quicklaunch compared to using a rocket?
Answer: The basic idea of Quicklaunch is that you launch a projectile from a cannon at 6 kilometers per second using compressed hydrogen gas. On a conventional rocket, the payload fraction is about 3%, whereas with our concept the payload is more than 20%. So we could get propellant into orbit for about a tenth the cost of using conventional rockets.

Question: So QuickLaunch could be used to launch propellant canisters to orbiting depots?
Answer:Yes, these depots will serve as orbiting gas stations. For most space missions, 90% of the cost is getting propellant into orbit. Each launch could lift 1,000 pounds of payload into orbit, and we are capable of about 5 launches per day, every day. So we could reasonably expect to be able to transfer 30,000 pounds of fuel to an orbiting depot within a week, if so desired.


Question: What are the anticipated costs per pound to orbit?
Answer: We plan on charging $500 per pound, and we can operate profitably at those rates. Moreover, since the system is inherently simpler than a conventional rocket, there shouldn't be the frequent delays that plague rocket launches. The system is inherently safe and suited for high throughput.

Question: So this system could provide the fuel for missions outside of earth orbit?
Answer: Yes, I believe that humans eventually need to get out of low-earth orbit. I've actually examined two studies of mars missions, and found that from low earth orbit, a million pounds of propellant are required per person getting to the Martian surface and returning to earth. So if we try to send a single human to mars and back using only conventional rockets, the cost is $5 billion per person just for the fuel. By using our Quicklaunch, the cost would be only $500 million per person for the fuel.



Question: Could this system be used to transport other consumables, such as water and food?
Answer: Definitely, water in particular could easily be launched because it is effectively incompressible and can be cracked to produce hydrogen and oxygen. Just about any type of food that can withstand the high-gs of launch could be transported, so grains and freeze-dried food would work well. In addition almost all habitat construction material can be launched. (Aluminum I beams, composites, Mylar, wiring, plumbing etc.)

Question: What about cameras and other electronic equipment?
Answer: We did G-tests in the 1990s on ruggedized satellites using the High G Test facilities at National Test Systems in Largo Florida. It turns out that many items, such as electronics, can be hardened to withstand high gs. Most cellphones are already hardened to withstand 1000 gs. Hardening surface mount electronics to withstand 3,200 gs only adds 2% to the weight of the object.

Question: Could Quicklaunch launch payloads into any type of low-earth orbit?
Answer: Yes, the versatility of the system is one of its best selling points. We can quickly change the inclination and position of the launcher to accommodate the needs of the client. The best place to put a Quicklaunch system would be in the ocean. This would allow you to launch to a wide variety of orbits. We could even launch different payloads to different orbits in the same day.

Question: How much would it cost to assemble and prepare a Quicklaunch system?
Answer: To get a system capable of launching 1,000 pound payloads to orbit into operation might cost $500 million. But constructing a proof of concept system that could hurl 100 pound payloads into orbit would cost only $50 million. Such a system could be quickly developed.

Question: How long would it require to get the QuickLaunch system up and running?
Answer: The main component - the cannon - is based on well understood principles and should not be difficult to perfect. There are four proposed development stages, and each stage should take two years. Phase 3, where we are actually launching payloads in the 100 pound range, would be in about the fifth year. The system would require roughly $500,000 per payload pound to develop, amortized over thousands of shots. So for example when amortizing over 10,000 launches, the capital cost is only $500,000/10,000= $50/lb. Naturally one must fold in the time value of money as well as the vehicle costs and the O&M.

Question: Wouldn't wear and tear on the cannon barrel be a major concern?
Answer: Yes, really good preventive maintenance on the barrels is required. The barrel will have a liner which will need to be periodically replaced. That process would require about a week. We would also need to be very careful to get proper payload alignments. We will also do maintenance between every launch, which would probably limit the number of launches to 5 per day.

Question: The animation at your website shows a propellant payload self-guiding into a fuel depot. How exactly would this work?
Answer: The depot would have a built in homing radio frequency beacon. There would be small rockets built into the payload for fine-positioning. Shortly after the payload was attached to the manifold, the fuel could be transferred to the depot.

Question: Could Quicklaunch be modified to launch payloads out of orbit?
Answer: Yes, the system scales up in a linear fashion, so a cannon that shoots payloads out of orbit could definitely be constructed. The engineering challenges to such a system would be relatively straightforward. Moreover, there are economies of scale that arise from scaling up systems. But at this point for cost reasons we are focusing on a system that deposits payloads into LEO. Quicklaunch makes a poor weapon due to its size and slow rate of fire. (Once every several hours). In addition we will not work for customers on weapons.

Question: Quicklaunch will be hydrogen powered. Will it reuse the hydrogen?
Answer: Yes, we have done tests in which we easily recaptured 97% of the hydrogen. I'm sure that if we tried we could recapture 99% of it. The hydrogen will be needed to be scrubbed between launches but that isn't hard.

Question: Could a Quicklaunch system be up and running by 2020?
Answer: Absolutely. It is quite feasible to go through all four phases within ten years. I could envision multiple Quicklaunch platforms up and running by 2020, launching to various depots. One platform could service all of the equatorial depots. Another Quicklaunch system could be launching payloads directly to lunar depots in lunar orbit. Once the Quicklaunch system is up and running, it should become obvious that this technology could facilitate a mars mission for a small fraction of the cost of using only conventional rockets.

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