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Successful Rocket Test Boosts Firm : Aerospace: A Camarillo company fires a motor in a step toward launching commercial payloads into space.

January 22, 1992|HUGO MARTIN and JOHN CHANDLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With a roar that thundered through the Mojave Desert, a Camarillo rocket company that had all but abandoned hope of making commercial space launches came a step closer to its goal Tuesday by successfully test-firing a rocket motor at Edwards Air Force Base.

The 30-second stationary firing poured out a 50-foot white, yellow and orange flame that shook nearby structures and turned part of the steel test platform red hot. It was the second of three tests scheduled for a motor built by the American Rocket Co., a scaled-down version of the one the company hopes to manufacture.

Company executives, who suffered a major setback when a full-size rocket burst into flames on a launching pad in October, 1989, congratulated one another with high-fives and handshakes and declared the test a success.

"Yes!" exclaimed AMROC spokesman George Whittinghill as he watched the test firing from a protective observation booth. "That's great, that's really great."

Officials of the 6-year-old company said they now hope to be launching multistage rockets with commercial payloads by 1996.

The test had been delayed nearly two weeks because of winds.

Whittinghill said he had full confidence in the rocket motor, which burns a combination of liquid oxygen and a solid fuel that resembles tire rubber. But he acknowledged being somewhat nervous. "You always get nervous beforehand," he said. "But everything worked out just great."

The company's first planned launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1989 failed when a full-size rocket toppled over and burned after a stuck fuel valve kept it from getting airborne. In the wake of that failure, company executives said they would sell rocket motors but leave the launching to others.

The privately funded company, however, soon discovered there was little market for rocket motors that had not been launch-proven. The failed launch forced the firm's managers to slash the payroll to about 20 employees from a peak of about 100.

Saying they were confident their motor would work this time, they returned to their original goal of making commercial launches themselves and scheduled more tests.

If the tests continue successfully, executives said, they hope to test-fire a full-size engine within two years. "The full-size rocket will be producing over seven times the thrust that this motor produced," Whittinghill said. "So when you talk about rocking and rolling, this place will be really shaking."

Tuesday's test at Edwards' Phillips Laboratory involved the horizontal firing of a 10-ton motor, about 35 feet long and 42 inches in diameter, that delivered about 12.5 tons of thrust. The roar of the engine was comparable to the sound heard from half a mile away of a jet aircraft taking off.

AMROC executives said a 15-second static test of the scaled-down rocket motor at Edwards went as planned Dec. 18. If a third static test planned for February also succeeds, the company will progress to static and then launch tests of a larger, full-powered single-stage rocket motor by 1994, they said.

Although the money has yet to be released, company President Paul Estey said AMROC last fall signed a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration worth about $8.5 million for two launches of that rocket, called the H-1500. Estey said it will have about three times the thrust of the rocket used in the failed 1989 launch.

But to provide enough power to carry commercial payloads into orbit, the company will have to combine four of its full-size motors into a four-stage launch vehicle, which is not likely to be tested until 1995, company officials said.

AMROC is one of a handful of companies working on small-payload commercial rockets. But Whittinghill and Estey said AMROC is the only one pursuing hybrid rockets powered by both solid and liquid fuel. AMROC contends that the engines are environmentally safer and less likely to explode than rockets powered solely by solid or liquid fuel.

Meanwhile, with nearly $20 million of private money already invested in the company, Whittinghill said AMROC is looking for "a large corporate partner" to help finance the remaining development work. With money tight because of the depressed economy, "it's not easy," he said.

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