Space: June 25, 2000


The High Altitude Aerial Launch program was originally run by Platforms International (a US company) and included several Russian and Ukrainian companies. The idea was to use boosters carried to an altitude of 5+ miles by ex-Russian Tu-160 Blackjack bombers to launch 2,500-pound satellites into low earth orbit. The scheme collapsed along with the Iridium satellite telephone system, since there was no longer such a pressing demand for putting ton-plus satellites into orbit. The program has now been restructured entirely with Russian and Ukrainian companies, which should lower the cost. Yakovlev, once a Soviet design bureau, is in charge. The three Tu-160s (which were given a special exemption from the START treaty) are on standby and dozens of leftover military boosters are in storage. The only question is whether Yakovlev can find a market, and enough money to keep going. The idea has every right to work. Using a heavy aircraft for the first stage is more cost efficient, and since the bombers could go to any nation on Earth to start their orbital launch flight, US export controls on satellite technology are not an issue. Using existing military boosters saves money. A country wanting to buy a launch would not need a spaceport or access to one, and neither would Yakovlev.--Stephen V Cole


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