Budget Ax Chops Boeing’s Pathfinder Reusable Rocket

By  //  January 4, 2013

Prohibitive Costs Sink Project

BREVARD COUNTY • KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA – A revolutionary new program that might have redefined the decades-old concept of space rocket launches has fallen victim to the U.S. budget ax.

An artist’s concept shows Boeing’s proposed reusable rocket system called Pathfinder. (Image courtesy of The Boeing Company)

In December 2011, The Boeing Company received a $2 million contract from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory to define requirements and design concepts for the Reusable Booster System Flight and Ground Experiments Pathfinder program.

But because of funding reductions, the U.S. Air Force has discontinued Boeing’s work in December on a prototype reusable rocket design that some, including the the U.S. National Research Council, say may be crucial to development of a new thrifty operational system.

The kerosene-fueled first stage would fly back to its launch site after completing its liftoff mission.

The Pathfinder design would have allowed the rocket to land horizontally on a specified landing strip.

In a press release, The National Research Council said development of such technology would have included oxygen-rich staged-combustion hydrocarbon engines and adaptive guidance and control, but prohibitive costs make the project unrealistic at this time.

Following the initial design work, some $55 to 75 million more was proposed to construct the Pathfinder rocket, but the Air Force chose to discontinue its funding of the project.

Other private space companies continue to explore reusable rocket technology such as the SpaceX Grasshopper program.

The Grasshopper system would return both the rocket and spacecraft to the launch site thereby reducing the need for construction and the cost of new vehicles for future missions.

With the decision to halt government funding for the RBS Pathfinder, private space firms will now control the destiny of advancing such technology.