Kelly Space and Technology obtained a contract with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory for the tow launch demonstration project under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The contract required that, in addition to USAF funding, KST also provide matching funding from their own corporate assets. The USAF SBIR contract included modifications to the QF-106 and C-141A aircraft to incorporate the tow provisions which linked the two aircraft.
Kelly Space and Technology's Eclipse Astroliner concept, which the current Eclipse project was to demonstrate on a smaller scale, used a transport type aircraft to tow the planned Astroliner vehicle from a conventional runway to a launch altitude of about 20,000 feet. At this altitude, the Eclipse Astroliner pilot would ignite the rocket engine at low throttle and then release from the tow line.
The Eclipse Astroliner would then climb under rocket power to its designated payload separation altitude of about 400,000 feet. After its ejection from the Eclipse Astroliner, the payload's upper stages would be ignited to deliver the payload to its specified orbital destination. The Eclipse Astroliner vehicle would then descend as a glider, much like the Space Shuttle, to land under pilot control.
KST extoled the many benefits of its tow launch concept: reusability, minimizing launch infrastructure, air freight operations, fuel economy, and flexibility regarding payload configuration and launch site location.
Kelly Space and Technology anticipated that successful implementation of the Eclipse Astroliner concept would result in reduced cost of placing satellites in low-Earth orbit by an order of magnitude, from the current $10,000 to $1,000 per payload-pound, within 10 years. This capability would enhance the competitive position of U.S. Industry in the commercialization of access to space and reduce the cost of putting military payloads into orbit.