Rockets by Whittinghill Aerospace

Whittinghill's suborbital rockets will form the basis of an orbital vehicle. Image: Whittinghill Aerospace.

George Whittinghill’s wife likes to joke that he and their son Ian share a defective gene, one that makes them both crazy for rockets.

Together they comprise a good percentage of the 7-member Whittinghill Aerospace team. Their ambitious goal: send small payloads into orbit.

Their plan calls for ganging together seven 32-foot-long, 2-foot-diameter rockets, each fueled by a hybrid nitrous oxide and rubber fueled motor. A final stage on top will nudge the payload the rest of the way into orbit once it reaches space.

When NASA announced its suborbital Flight Opportunities Program (FOP), George realized that one of the stages of his so-called Minimum Cost Launch Vehicle, or MCLV, could meet the specs for sending experiments on high altitude, zero-g trajectories with reusable vehicles.

“I haven’t named the [suborbital] sounding rocket yet,” George told me on the phone. “This procurement kind of caught me by surprise.'”

This month, NASA named Whittinghill Aerospace, based in Camarillo, on the Southern California coast, as one of seven suborbital launch providers that will fly research payloads for its new program.

It’s all about providing cheaper and more frequent access to space than has ever been available before. NASA hopes that by buying rides for researchers on the new vehicles, it will help foster the fledgling suborbital launch industry as well accelerate space technology development through in-flight testing in experimental payloads.

George Whittinghill, an MIT aerospace grad and a veteran of the US ballistic missile defense program as well as a former NASA employee at Johnson Space Center, figures he has a leg up on more traditional solid fuel sounding rocket designs. His vehicles will be reusable and thus less expensive, and their rubber fuel is safer to handle and transport.

He and Ian, who is a USC aerospace grad, and the rest of the team plan to begin test firing their rocket motors early next year in Mojave, California, home to no less than three other FOP launch providers.

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The Whittinghills know what they have to do to get a piece of the action. “My primary interest is to provide dedicated access to the user that wants to launch small payloads. The whole idea is rapid access, fast turn around, low cost. I’m trying to fill the market that’s just not well served right now.”