Citing pent-up demand for suborbital flights for research, microgravity manufacturing and education, a Texas-based company has signed a five-year agreement with Spaceport America in New Mexico to begin commercial flights of its reusable suborbital launch vehicle later this year.                                                                       

Based in Caddo Mills, Texas, Exos Aerospace Systems & Technology was formed in 2014 by employees of the former Armadillo Aerospace, which was pursuing manned suborbital space tourism with ambitions for orbital spaceflight. Exos’s suborbital launcher is based on Armadillo’s Stig-B design.

Armadillo was founded in 2000 by game designer John Carmack. In 2013, he became chief technology officer of virtual-reality developer Oculus, which was sold to Facebook in 2014. “When Facebook bought them for $2 billion, Carmack was told to focus on Oculus, not rockets, so he had to step away,” says John Quinn, Exos co-founder and chief operating officer.

Exos was formed to bring the core Armadillo team back together and restart development, Quinn says. “We are focused on reusable suborbital, not low Earth orbit,” he says. “We believe there is a specific market for R&S and actual suborbital manufacturing – semiconductors and biotech – as well as education and the sciences.”

The company’s Sarge (for Suborbital Active Rocket with Guidance) suborbital launch vehicle is an enhancement of the Stig-B flown three times by Armadillo in 2013, with increased performance, Quinn says. Designed to carry a 110-lb. payload, the vehicle will provide several minutes of zero g, re-enter under a drogue and then deploy a guided parachute to fly back to the launch site.

In addition to streaming data from the payload during the flight, Exos aims to hand an experiment back to its customer within 30 min. of landing. “We are told it’s important in biomedicine and pharmaceuticals to have the data available quickly,” he says.

First launch of the Sarge is planned for November, from Spaceport America. Exos has partial payloads for both the initial company-funded pathfinder flight and the second launch, which will be for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program. Quinn says Exos plans to fly again within 30 days of the pathfinder launch, and to have four more flights within six weeks.

Six launches are already scheduled for 2017, and Exos plans to increase the flight rate to weekly in 2018, he says, pointing to pent-up demand for flights. “Everybody is going orbital, but then you have to get permission from the primary customer. NASA has 150 payloads on hold in the queue, the European Space Agency has 150 and the Australians have around 200,” Quinn said.

Exos is marketing third, half and full payload slots. But as its customer base grows, it aims to reach down and offer cubesat flight opportunities to universities, and even high schools, through NASA. “We want to help high schools work with universities to develop technologies in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] programs,” Quinn says.