A Busy Six Months as Suborbital Spaceflight Comes Into its Own

New Shepard lands after the NS-21 flight. (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

Part I of II

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For decades, the suborbital launch sector was largely a backwater. Militaries tested ballistic missiles, scientists conducted experiments, and engineers tested new technologies. A sounding rocket is small potatoes compared with orbital rocket launches and the glamor of human spaceflight. Few people paid much attention.

All that has changed in recent years as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin and their billionaire owners — Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos — started launching themselves and others on suborbital joyrides. Startups have been conducting suborbital flight tests of new orbital launch vehicles designed to serve the booming smalls satellite market. Suborbital has become a much more interesting sector.

This year has been no exception. The first half of 2022 saw Blue Origin send 12 people into space on two New Shepard flights, a Chinese company conduct six launches in a program to develop aa suborbital spaceplane and hypersonic transport, South Korea and Iran perform flight tests of three different smallsat launchers, Germany test technologies for reusable rockets, and first-ever commercial launch from Australia. And, a great deal of science was done.

There were 23 suborbital launches using 13 different kinds of boosters that were not tests of military ballistic missiles. Nine launches were conducted in the United States, six in China, two apiece in Norway and South Korea, and one each in Australia, Iran, North Korea and Sweden.

Below, we’ll take a closer look at the significant suborbital flights in the first half of 2022. Click here for Part II, which provides a detailed breakdown of all the flights.

Blue Soars into the Black

New Shepard launches on its 21st flight of the program on June 4, 2022. (Credit: Blue Origin)

With Virgin Galactic’s space vehicles in the hangar for lengthy overhauls, Bezos’ Blue Origin had the human suborbital market all to itself. The company conducted two suborbital flights that flew 12 individuals above the Karman line.

Suborbital Human Spaceflight
January–June 2022

DateVehicleCompanyLocationSpaceflight ParticipantsNotes
March 31, 2022New Shepard (NS-20)Blue OriginCorn Ranch (Texas)Marty Allen, Sharon Hagle, Marc Hagle, Jim Kitchen, George Nield, Gary LaiFourth New Shepard human flight, 107 km (66.5 miles) apogee
June 4, 2022New Shepard (NS-21)Blue OriginCorn Ranch (Texas)Evan Dick, Katya Echazarreta, Victor Correa Hespanha, Jaison Robinson, Victor VescovoFifth New Shepard human flight, 107 km (66.5 miles) apogee
Source: Blue Origin

The NS-20 flight on March 31 gave New Shepard’s chief architect Gary Lai an opportunity to fly in a vehicle that he designed. Lai joined the flight after Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson dropped out due to a scheduling conflict.

Lai was joined on New Shepard’s 20th flight by George Nield, a private consultant who previously headed up the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation that is responsible for licensing Blue Origin and all other commercial launches.

New Shepard NS-20 spaceflight participants. Pictured from left to right: Gary Lai, Jim Kitchen, Marty Allen, Sharon Hagle, Marc Hagle, and Dr. George Nield. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Marc and Sharon Hagle became the first couple to fly on a commercial space vehicle. Marc is president and CEO of Tricor International, a residential and commercial property development corporation. Sharon founded SpaceKids Global in 2015, a nonprofit whose mission is to inspire students to excel in STEAM+ education with a focus on empowering young girls.

Rounding out the six-member group were Marty Allen and Jim Kitchen. Allen is an angel investor who was formerly CEO of Party America and California Closet Company. Kitchen is a teacher, entrepreneur, and world explorer who fulfilled a childhood dream of flying to space.

NS-21 spaceflight participants. (Credit: Blue Origin)

The NS-21 flight on June 4 included:

  • Evan Dick, who an engineer, investor, and managing member of Dick Holdings;
  • electrical engineer and former NASA test lead Katya Echazarreta;
  • business jet pilot and Action Aviation Chairman Hamish Harding;
  • Brazilian civil production engineer Victor Correa Hespanha;
  • Dream Variation Ventures co-founder Jaison Robinson; and
  • retired U.S. Navy Commander Victor Vescovo, who co-founded the private equity firm Insight Equity.

Echazarreta became the first Mexican-born woman and youngest American woman to fly to space. She flew as part of Space for Humanity’s Citizen Astronaut Program.

Hespanha became the second Brazilian to fly to space. He was sponsored by the Crypto Space Agency, whose goal is to accelerate humankind’s off-world future.

Dick became the first person to fly on New Shepard for a second time, having previously reached space during the NS-19 flight on Dec. 11, 2021.

China’s Space Tourism & Hypersonic Ambitions

Tianxing hypersonic vehicle (Credit: Space Transportation)

Space Transportation, a.k.a., Beijing Lingkong Tianxing Technology, said on its website that it conducted six test flights this year as part of its Tianxing program. The launches were split evenly between Tianxing I and Tianxing II rockets.

Space Transportation’s goal is to develop a suborbital spaceplane capable of carrying tourists on suborbital flights. A later variant would be a high-speed transport that would fly between distant locations on Earth in less than two hours. The image below shows the evolution of the planned test vehicles.

Tianxing suborbital spaceplane and hypersonic transport vehicle development plan. (Credit: Space Transportation)

The company released very little information about the six launches it conducted this year. It’s not even clear where the flights took place, although Wikipedia indicates they might have been conducted from the state-owned Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

Space Transportation has published the following development schedule:

2019-2022: technology verifications through flight tests;
2023: flight test of suborbital space tourism prototype;
2025: crewed flight of space tourism vehicle;
2028: flight test of global hypersonic vehicle prototype; and
2030: completion of full-scale global hypersonic vehicle.

Tianxing hypersonic vehicle flight profile. (Credit: Space Transportation)

Space Transportation has raised $60.6 million in three funding rounds. The company announced a Series A round in August 2021 that totaled $46.3 million. Matrix Partners China and Shanghai Guosheng Group led the round with new investors Wuyuefeng Capital, Xiamen Feiyu Yinghang and Shanghai Huygens.

Previous investors Source Code Capital, Volcanic Stone Capital, Keke Li Venture Capital, Yuanhe Yuandian, and Zhencheng Investment also contributed to the Series A round. The five investors were part of a $14.3 million seed round that was announced in December 2019.

Source Capital led an angel round that was announced in March 2019.

Dueling Rocket Launches on the Korean Peninsula

Launch of Blue Whale 0.1 rocket. (Credit: Perigee Aerospace)

The divided Korean peninsula saw three suborbital launches as both North and South Korea sought to develop technologies needed for orbital launches.

On Feb. 26, the North Korea People’s Army Strategic Force launched the two-stage Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missiles from Sunan. The flight’s purpose was to test an imaging system for use on a future reconnaissance satellite. The payload reached an apogee of about 620 km (385.25 miles).

Four weeks later on March 24, South Korean startup Perigee Aerospace conducted the third flight test of its Blue Whale 0.1 from Jeju Island.

The suborbital rocket tested technology for Blue Whale 1, a two-stage orbital booster powered by liquid oxygen and liquid natural gas. The booster will be capable of orbiting satellites weighing 40 kg (88.2 lb) into a 500 km (310.7 mile) high sun synchronous orbit, or 50 kg (110.2 lb) into a 500 km (310.7 mile) high low Earth orbit. Launches are planned from Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex in Australia.

South Korea’s solid-fuel space projectile launches on a flight test on March 30, 2022 (Credit: South Korea Ministry of National Defense)

Perigee has received investment from Samsung Venture Investments and LB Investment. The company has also received support from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, which is a national research institute.

Six days after Perigee’s launch, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense launched the Solid Fuel Space Projectile with a dummy payload on a suborbital flight. The launch was part of a development program aimed at producing a booster capable of launching 500-kg (1,102.3 lb) satellites into orbit. The first flight is scheduled for around 2024.

North & South Korea Suborbital Flights
January – June 2022

DateOrganizationPartnerLaunch VehicleLaunch SitePurpose
Feb. 26, 2022KPA Strategic Rocket ForceNational Aerospace Development AdministrationHwasong-17Sunan International AirportTested imaging system for future reconnaissance satellite
March 24, 2022Perigee AerospaceKorea Advanced Institute of Science and TechnologyBlue Whale 0.1Jeju IslandThird flight test of smallsat launcher
March 30, 2022South Korea Ministry of National DefenseSolid Fuel Space ProjectileJackup sea installationSmallsat launcher flight test
Source: Wikipedia & original research

Iran Develops a New Booster

Zuljanah launch vehicle. ( Credit: tasnimnews)

On June 26, Iran launched its new Zulianah satellite booster on a successful suborbital flight test for the second time. The launch was conducted from the Semnan Space Center in Northern Iran.

Zulianah is a three-stage launch vehicle designed to place a spacecraft weighing 220 kg (485 lb) or ten 20 kg (44.1 lb) CubeSats into a 500 km (310.7 mile) high orbit. The booster specifications are:

Length: 25.5 meters (83.7 ft)
Mass: 52 tons (114,640 lb)

First & Second Stages
Motor Diameter: 1.5 meter (4.9 ft)
Fuel: solid
Thrust: 74 tons (725 kN; 163,000 lbf)

Third Stage
Engine Diameter: 1.25 meter (4.1 feet)
Fuels: liquid (UDMH /N2O4)
Thrust: 3.5 tons (35 kN; 7,800 lbf)

Zulijanah is Iran’s third domestically developed launch vehicle; the other two are named Safir and Simorgh. It is the first satellite launcher to use a combination of solid- and liquid-fuel stages.

Zulijanah’s previous suborbital flight test was conducted on Jan. 31, 2021. Two additional additional test launches are planned.

Zulijanah can be driven to a location and launched using a transporter-erector system with limited preparation. U.S. and European analysts have expressed concerns that Iran might be using the program as a cover to develop an intermediate range ballistic missile.

Germany Tests Reusable Rocket Technology

Launch of the STORT flight experiment aboard a VSB-30 Improved Orion sounding rocket. [Credit: DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)]

The success of SpaceX has led Europeans to rethink their strategy for developing new boosters. Of particular interest are launch vehicles that could be reused multiple times like the first stages of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters.

On June 26, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) launched the STORT mission aboard a three-stage VSB-30 Improved Orion rocket from the Andoya Space rocket range in Norway. STORT is a German acronym that translates into “key technologies for high-energetic return flights of reusable launcher stages.”

The flight’s objective was to simulate the temperatures and loads that a booster would experience during reentry. The rocket’s third stage was fitted with five ceramic segments that were accelerated to a velocity of around 9,000 km/h (5.592 mph), which is in excess of Mach 8. Measurements were taken by heat flow sensors, thermocouples and pressure sensors attached to the rocket.

The Technical University of Munich constructed the carbon-fiber-reinforced polymers module used on the flight. The University of Arizona performed simulations for the flight experiment. DLR’s Mobile Rocket Base department was responsible for planning and executing the mission.

NASA Helps Australia Inaugurate a Commercial Spaceport

Australia’s first commercial launch was conducted on June 26 when a NASA Black Brant IX rocket lifted off from Arnhem Space Centre in Australia’s Northern Territory. The two-stage booster, which carried an x-ray astronomy payload from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reached an altitude of 327 km (203.2 miles).

Arnhem Space Centre is owned by Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA). Located 12 degrees south of the Equator, Arnhem is the world’s only commercially-owned and operated equatorial spaceport.

“In the lead up to the launch, I was consistently asked if I was excited,” said ELA Executive Chairman Michael Jones. “I can officially now say, I’m excited. I’m excited both about the success of our launch but also for the future of ELA and the Australian space industry.

“We could never have dreamed of having such a supportive, experienced and professional partner as NASA,” Jones added. “They have been unbelievably generous in helping us through this journey and we will be a much better organization for their support. Today’s launch not only puts ELA at the forefront of global commercial space launch, it also confirms that we and Australia can provide access to space and this is just the beginning for us.”

It was the first of three NASA launches from the Australian spaceport. On July 6, a Black Brant IX rocket launched to image the Alpha Centauri A and B stars in extreme- and far-infrared light. A third Black Brant IX flight to study the two stars is planned for later this month.

“Ultraviolet light, which has wavelengths shorter than the light that is visible to the human eye, is a critical factor in the search for life,” NASA said in a press release. “A little bit of ultraviolet light can help form the molecules necessary for life, but too much can erode an atmosphere, leaving behind an inhospitable planet.”

Part II: Suborbital Spaceflight by the Numbers