A Look Back at Suborbital Space in 2012

Excerpted from the FAA report, “Commercial Space Transportation: 2012 Year in Review”.

FAA Suborbital Flight Summary

On October 6, at New Mexico’s Spaceport America, Armadillo Aerospace’s STIG-B suborbital reusable vehicle (SRV) made the only FAA-licensed suborbital launch of 2012. However, six other suborbital vehicles flew under experimental permits or Class 3 waivers.

The STIG-B flight was the first FAA-licensed launch from Spaceport America. The launch experienced an in-flight abort. It did not reach its planned altitude, but the vehicle was successfully recovered intact and later used to conduct launch tests in November and December. Armadillo successfully launched its STIG-A vehicle under a Class 3 Waiver in January, but the vehicle was lost during recovery.

Blue Origin successfully tested its launch escape system for the New Shepard SRV at its launch facility in West Texas.


Masten Space Systems conducted several tests from its location at Mojave Air and Space Port. The company successfully fired its Katana engine (KA5S) that will be used for its Xogdor SRV and XEUS lunar lander demonstrator. Masten’s Xaero SRV succeeded in reaching an altitude of 444 meters (1,457 feet) in July, and topped one kilometer in altitude in September. A throttle valve failure occurred during the last flight, ultimately destroying the vehicle upon impact with the ground. The company is constructing the Xaero-B, which will be powered by Masten’s new Scimitar engine. Finally, Masten successfully conducted a translation flight using its Xombie vehicle, which launched vertically to an altitude of 477 meters (1,565 feet), translated horizontally 750 meters (2,460 feet), and landed vertically on another pad. So far, all Masten flights have launched under FAA Class 3 Waivers for advanced high-power rockets.

Scaled Composites continues to conduct flight tests of SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo from its base at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Seven glide flights of SpaceShipTwo were conducted during 2012 under an FAA experimental permit. The final glide test of SpaceShipTwo in 2012 featured a fully integrated rocket engine, though it was not ignited during flight. Rocket-powered flights are planned to begin in 2013.

SpaceX successfully tested its Grasshopper vehicle three times during the year. Its third test, on December 17, at the company’s testing facilities in McGregor, Texas, lifted off vertically to an altitude of 40 meters (131 feet) before successfully landing vertically back on the pad. The Grasshopper is not an SRV, but rather a flight test article supporting the company’s program to develop a reusable Falcon 9 first stage. The tests are conducted under an FAA experimental permit because of the size and power of the Merlin 1D engine.

On April 5, UP Aerospace conducted its tenth launch from Spaceport America, carrying payloads for DoD, NASA, the FAA Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation, and the University of Texas. The company launches its SpaceLoft vehicle under an FAA Class 3 Waiver.