Sixty years young today, Lockheed Martin's (LMT 0.87%) F-104 Starfighter won't be eligible for early retirement for two more years (although in fact, the last F-104 was retired from service in 2004).
Designed to intercept and shoot down Warsaw Pact fighters in the 1950s, the Starfighter was built for one thing: speed. "Sharp as the blade of a dagger," Lockheed called it, with "thin seven-foot wings" that didn't produce much drag, the F-104 was the first fighter to hit Mach 2. Germany loved it so much that it ordered up 1,000 units, and made the Starfighter the core of the 1970s-era Luftwaffe.
Despite its space-age looks, the F-104 Starfighter was eventually superseded by more versatile aircraft, such as Lockheed Martin's own F-16 Falcon (which went on to become the world's most popular fighter jet). The last F-104 Starfighter rolled off Lockheed's assembly lines more than 35 years ago.
Yet today, the Starfighter is getting a new lease on life. The fighter jet that resembled a rocketship when it was invented 60 years ago is being reborn -- as a rocketship in its own right.
Rocketships 'R' Us
A few months back, I told you about a handful of companies that have begun rising up to create a new space industry, launching cheap, disposable "microsatellites" into space at a fraction of the cost that SpaceX charges for a launch -- or that Lockheed itself charges to launch larger satellites. With names like Rocket Lab, Vector Space Systems, and Firefly Space Systems, they conjure up images of everything from early 1950s high school rocketry to early 2000s mainstream sci-fi. Since these start-ups are privately funded for the most part, few people have even heard of them -- but already, they're beginning to shake up the space industry.
One of the smallest of this handful of micro caps is tiny CubeCab -- a company I dismissed in June as "so new its website doesn't even list a physical address." And yet, what CubeCab lacks in physicality, it makes up for in the audacity of its business plan.
Like a Phoenix reborn (flying like a bat out of hell)
You see, CubeCab has a plan to revive the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter as a launch vehicle for transporting tiny "CubeSat" microsatellites into space. The plan works like this:
In cooperation with Florida company Starfighters, Inc., which owns a fleet of about a half-dozen reconditioned Starfighters, CubeCab will pack customers' CubeSats into rockets weighing about 22 pounds each. (Most of that will be fuel. A "1U" CubeSat weighs only about three pounds, and measures four inches on a side. CubeCab will be launching "3U" CubeSats, which are basically three "1Us" glued together.)
Each CubeSat-carrying rocket will attach to one of the Starfighter's wing-mounted weapons pylons. A Starfighter so equipped will then launch from the ground and fly a "parabolic flight profile," topping out anywhere from 60,000 to north of 100,000 feet above ground. At the apex of that route, the Starfighter will fire its rocket, providing the added oomph needed to boost its satellite payload to orbital velocity.
At that point, its payload delivered, the Starfighter will turn tail, return to Earth, and land -- ready for refueling and launching the next microsat.
Lather, rinse, and repeat
CubeCab hopes to achieve quick turnaround times on its launches, and to provide quick service to its customers as well -- "30 days from order to launch," says Chief Operating Officer Dustin Still.
Although CubeCab has no need for a dedicated spaceport, rocket launch pad, or booster, it still needs to finish development of its on-board delivery rocket. It expects to complete this task in time to begin launch operations in 2018, the same year Vector Space begins launching, and about a year after Rocket Lab begins operations. Around the same time, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic should begin test launches of its own microsatellite delivery service, LauncherOne.
Why all the sudden interest, and from so many companies? Economics.
CubeCab says it costs only about $1 million to acquire a used Starfighter, and it's perhaps another $1 million to recondition it for use as a launch platform. CubeCab plans to charge "only $250,000" per CubeSat launch. So even if it owned the Starfighters outright, its investment could probably be repaid in under a dozen launches. Outsourcing the actual ownership of the launch vehicle to Starfighters, Inc., Cube Cab should begin making money even faster.
As for CubeCab's rivals, by and large they're developing entirely new vehicles to put satellites in orbit, and accordingly, charging a lot more for the service (even if not quite so much as SpaceX or Lockheed). On the other hand, most of these rivals are also developing more robust launchers, capable of putting (somewhat) larger satellites into orbit. One thing they all depend on to make money in this business, though, is a fast tempo, permitting them to launch rockets at a pace heretofore unseen in this business.
Whether any of them will be as fast as a Starfighter remains to be seen.