The history of the Conestoga rocket

The Conestoga was a rocket consisting originally of surplus Minuteman missile stages with additional strap-on boosters, as required, for larger payloads. It was the world’s first privately-funded commercial rocket, but was used only three times (one as a modified design) before the program was shut down due to a lack of business.

History of the Conestoga rocket

Conestoga was funded by Space Services Inc. of America (SSIA) in Houston, Texas. They had originally intended to use a design by Gary Hudson, Percheron, which was intended to dramatically lower the price of space launches. Key to the design was a simple pressure-fed kerosene-oxidizer engine that was intended to reduce the costs associated with “throwing away” the booster. Various loads could be accommodated by clustering the basic modules together. SSIA conducted an engine test firing of the Percheron from Matagorda Island on August 5, 1981, but the rocket exploded on the pad due to a malfunction. SSIA then parted ways with Hudson.

SSIA founder David Hannah then hired Deke Slayton, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. Slayton had just left NASA after running (among earlier roles) the Space Shuttle Landing and Approach validation testing. They came up with an entire new design based on clustering engines from the second stage of the Minuteman missile. The first launch of the new Conestoga I design took place on September 9, 1982, consisting of the core missile stage and a five hundred kilograms dummy payload which included forty gallons of water. The payload was successfully ejected at three hundred and thirteen kilometers, and the Conestoga I became the first privately funded rocket to reach space.

SSIA launched a second rocket in 1989, turning to commercial support for microgravity experiments, using the Black Brant sounding rocket which they referred to as “Starfire”.

SSIA was purchased by EER Systems in December 1990. The design was modified again, this time using the Castor engines originally used on the Scout, a workhorse of the 1960s. The new design was known as the Conestoga 1620, or by other numbers depending on the number and arrangement of the boosters.

The COMET program

In May 1990, the Center for Space Transportation and Applied Research (CSTAR), at the University of Tennessee in Tullahoma, a university entity operating as a NASA Commercial Center for the Development of Space (CCDS), proposed COMET to the NASA Office of Commercial Programs. CSTAR proposed to procure three COMET missions for NASA for about eighty-five million American dollars spread over five years. The focus of the COMET program was on jump-starting the incipient space-based materials processing industry. The COMET spacecraft would carry microgravity experiments into low Earth orbit (LEO) for a month, then parachute test samples back to Earth in a reusable, recoverable module. Another portion of the spacecraft, the service module, would be left in orbit for two to four years. Rides on the COMET promised to be longer and better than those aboard either the Space Shuttle or a sounding rocket.

CSTAR’s role in the COMET program was to provide general oversight. The prime contractors for COMET were the Space Division of Westinghouse Electric Corporation, in Baltimore, which supplied the service module; Space Industries, Inc. of League City, Texas, which provided the recovery module; and EER Systems Corp. of Vienna, Va., which furnished the Conestoga launch vehicle. Space Industries, Inc., also was to contribute payload integration, orbital operations, and the recovery system. Westinghouse’s Commercial & Civil Space Department was hoping to sell COMET services to commercial customers under the business name Westinghouse Space Transportation and Recovery (Westar).

The Conestoga rocket was a new launch vehicle, and the launching of COMET would mark its debut. While employed by Space Services Inc. (SSI) of Houston, Texas, Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, thought up the concept of a multiple-stage rocket consisting of a core motor with additional motors strapped around it, the number of additional motors depending on the size of the payload. This was the Conestoga rocket. When EER bought SSI, they acquired the Conestoga design, as well as Deke Slayton, who came to EER as Director of the Space Services Division.

It did not take long before it became obvious to NASA that the COMET program was in trouble, and as early as February 1992, COMET problems aired in the press following a major design review completed January 22, 1992. One serious problem was a launch delay arising from the late delivery of rocket motors by the Thiokol Corporation of Ogden, Utah. NASA, however, felt that the problems went deeper. CSTAR was not performing competently as project manager, incapable of handling such a complex engineering effort and causing repeated schedule delays. NASA further was troubled by the project’s mushrooming costs, which had ballooned to an estimated one hundred and fifty-eight million American dollars for three missions. As a result, COMET was reduced from a three-mission to a single-mission program with a budget of 65.8 million American dollars, instead of eighty-five million American dollars for three missions. By January 1994, the relationship between NASA and CSTAR had reached bottom, as NASA announced plans to phase out CSTAR and five other Commercial Centers for the Development of Space. The termination of CSTAR raised several major questions about COMET’s future, especially who would run the COMET program.

Launch failure

The entire COMET program quickly ran into delays and budget overruns, and it was not until the end of the program that a COMET (now known as METEOR) and Conestoga 1620 were finally ready for launch. The satellite payload included a number of experiments, including materials (evaluate exposure to the caustic space environment), biological (assessment of seed reaction in micro-gravity; growth fluids were to be injected to the seed containers after launch), as well as GPS/radar correlation tracking. The satellite included a recoverable section that was to separate on command after several weeks on orbit, fire a small internal retro-motor, and descend for a recovery off the Virginia coast.

The launch took place from the a special clamshell gantry, which included power and environmental controls, at the south end of Wallops Flight Facility on October 23, 1995; the rocket launched normally, but broke up in-flight forty-six seconds later EER concluded that an unknown source of low frequency noise caused the guidance system to order course corrections when none were needed, eventually causing the steering mechanism to run out of hydraulic fluid. An earlier NASA review had already decided to refuse further funding due to the original delays, and EER subsequently got out of the rocket business. It was purchased by L-3 Communications in 2001 for one hundred and ten million American dollars.