The weather on the morning of August 11, 2021, was sunny and warm, with a slight but steady wind blowing through the desert that surrounds southern New Mexico’s Spaceport America (yes, the same Spaceport America from which Richard Branson launched toward space on July 11, 2021). Just east of the glassy, modern Spaceport headquarters, a blue rocket was positioned vertically on a launchpad, ready to be blasted 60 miles high, to the edge of outer space.
Inside mission control—a retrofitted trailer about half a mile from the rocket—Los Alamos National Laboratory mechanical engineer Justin McGlown manned several phones. In intervals, he spoke with ground monitoring stations across the state that would track the rocket’s flight and eventual crash into White Sands Missile Range, just miles east of where he sat.
McGlown spends most of his time at the Lab engineering small satellites, called CubeSats, for the Lab’s Agile Space program. But this launch was different from anything he’d done before. In fact, it was different from anything the Lab had done before.
The August 11 launch would mark several “firsts” for Los Alamos. It would be the first collaboration between Los Alamos and the state of New Mexico–owned Spaceport America.
It would be the first time the Lab partnered with a private company—Up Aerospace, based in Denver, Colorado—to launch a rocket carrying a Los Alamos–designed and assembled payload. It would also be the first time an in-flight payload would send information to a nearby, orbiting satellite.
Inside the control room, Jerry Larson, president of Up Aerospace, spoke into a microphone that broadcast his voice to the crowd of observers gathered outside on bleachers. “Launch crew has successfully completed all pre-launch procedures,” he said. “Request permission to proceed with terminal countdown operations.”
This was the moment that McGlown, and dozens of Lab scientists and engineers, had waited on for more than a year.
The weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile were designed and built in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. These weapons remain safe and reliable, largely because of various updates over the years by Los Alamos and other national laboratories. This general maintenance of nuclear weapons is called the Stockpile Stewardship Program, and in 2016 the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) created a parallel program called the Stockpile Responsiveness Program to “fully exercise the workforce and capabilities of the nuclear security enterprise,” according to its Fiscal Year 2021 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan Biennial Plan Summary. The program engages “the technical capabilities required for all stages of the design, testing, and production of nuclear weapons, as well as working in concert with DOD [Department of Defense] to recruit, train, and retain the next generation of weapon designers and engineers.”
“The Stockpile Responsiveness Program is allowing our new staff to learn and develop the experience they will need to meet the Lab’s national security mission requirements,” explains Matthew Tucker, a program manager with the Lab’s Office of National Security and International Studies. “We need to significantly decrease the amount of time it takes to go from concept to prototype in order to be prepared to respond to emergent threats.”
So what does stockpile responsiveness have to do with rockets? Well, new technical capabilities for the stockpile require testing, specifically flight testing, which involves launching systems on rockets to see how the systems behave in extreme conditions, such as zero gravity, very high or low temperatures, and varying accelerations, velocities, and pressures. A rocket launch can produce environments relevant to those a system would need to survive on an intercontinental ballistic missile launch. In other words, flight tests help ensure systems will perform as expected on the “real thing.”
In the past, flight tests were conducted over the Pacific Ocean and required very specific telemetry data to meet DOD test requirements, which also meant relying on a large contingent of DOD assets (such as U.S. Navy ships and ground-monitoring stations) to support each test. Lots of people, resources, and vessels were needed for each test to aid with everything from data collection to tracing the impact location and even for recovering the rockets. Given all of this, these experiments were very expensive—roughly $100 million per flight—which limited the ability to do iterative design, to test new ideas, or to provide the training required for teams to take a system from concept to reality.
But things have changed. From SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, to dozens of smaller companies, private industry is doing what was once reserved for governments: launching rockets. In this 21st-century space race, entrepreneurs are jockeying to reach beyond Earth’s atmosphere, quicker and cheaper than ever before.
“There’s been a revolution in commercial launches—you just contract with a company and bring your satellite or whatever your payload is, and they send it to space,” Tucker says. “We thought, why can’t we do the same for our flight tests?”
As Tucker and others began to discuss this possibility, they realized that it was not only totally doable but also faster to coordinate and significantly less expensive.
The three things they had to figure out, however, were—without the DOD—who would launch their payload, who would collect the flight diagnostics, and who would recover the rocket?
The solutions for two of these things, it turned out, were pretty close to home.
Making it work
About 270 miles south of the Laboratory is Spaceport America. Adjacent to the Spaceport, just over a mountain range, is White Sands Missile Range. At nearly 3,200 square miles, the Army-operated testing range is the largest military installation in the United States.
“When we looked at that combination it became obvious,” Tucker says. “If we found a private company to launch out of Spaceport, we could then use White Sands to help coordinate with tracking and for the recovery of the rocket and payload. We knew it could save a lot of money, and we knew it was achievable. It’s just that this had never been done before, so for the next year we set about figuring out how to make it work.”
As the Lab looked around for a private company with which to partner, it found Up Aerospace, a family-owned business lead by Larson, a former Lockheed Martin employee who conducted suborbital flight experiments for NASA. “I worked at Lockheed Martin for 20 years launching rockets,” Larson says. “I loved it there, but when the opportunity came 15 years ago for me to start my own company, I took a chance. We’ve been able to work with the U.S. Air Force, NASA, a lot of other organizations, and now Los Alamos. It’s been a really fun ride.”
The company designs and assembles rockets itself; currently, it has three models from which to choose. Cesaroni Technologies, based in Florida, manufactures motors for the rockets. Once a rocket is ready for launch, Up Aerospace coordinates with all involved parties, including Spaceport America and the Federal Aviation Administration.
For the Los Alamos flight test, which was named ReDX-1 (pronounced like “FedEx” and short for Responsive Development Experiment), Larson’s Up Aerospace used its SpaceLoft rocket, which weighs 800 pounds and can fly 60 miles into the atmosphere, reaching Mach 6 in 12 seconds. “You can watch it lift off, and within seconds it will be at about 45,000 feet, pulling 15 Gs [15 times the force of gravity],” Larson says. “The fins are canted with an angle, which allows the rocket to spin, kind of like a bullet, and that makes it much more accurate.”
Accuracy was important for the third piece of the puzzle— collecting the flight diagnostics. “Using a satellite to upload the flight diagnostic data seemed like the easiest option,” explains McGlown, noting that for this to happen, the rocket’s payload—which would be ejected in space—would have to “talk” to an already orbiting Lab-designed DOD satellite. These very fast-moving objects would have a four-minute-long window to speak to each other while flying in different directions. It would be like tossing a ball from a moving car and expecting someone driving in the opposite direction to catch it.
“The Lab has extensive background building and designing satellites, so we knew it was possible,” McGlown says. “Accomplishing that, however, meant we’d need to design the communications and diagnostic payload from the ground up.”
A younger generation
McGlown became vital in this process, not only because of his technical skill set, but also because of his age. At just 35 years old, McGlown was among the youngest engineers working on the project.
“For the ReDX-1 test, we wanted someone who could not only help lead the current launch, but someone who could then become a leader on future missions. Immediately, Justin McGlown’s name was brought up,” Tucker says. “It was very important to us to partner some of our veteran scientists with early and mid-career employees.”
This type of knowledge transfer is also an objective—and crucial to the success—of the Stockpile Responsiveness Program. In fact, 50 U.S. Code 2538b, which legislates the program, specifies one of the program’s objectives is to “identify, enhance, and transfer knowledge, skills, and direct experience with respect to all phases of the joint nuclear weapons life cycle process from one generation of nuclear weapon designers and engineers to the following generation.”
McGlown became fascinated with space because of his father, an amateur astronomer. After earning a master’s in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee and then working at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia, McGlown landed at Los Alamos in 2015.
“When I saw the Lab was hiring someone to help work with satellites on the Agile Space Program, I applied right away,” McGlown remembers. “I was actually leaving the theater after watching the film Interstellar when I got the call offering me the job. So it was kind of a coincidence.”
McGlown develops CubeSats, tiny satellites that are generally 10 centimeters-square. These small satellites typically “piggyback” into space, meaning they catch a ride on a shared rocket system. This background with small orbital systems built for rideshare applications made McGlown a natural fit for the ReDX-1 test.
Up Aerospace’s payload requirement meant that Los Alamos engineers had to develop a cone-shaped structure to hold the payload that was 12 inches high, 10 inches wide, and included an antenna, diagnostic equipment, a power source, and other electronics. After two months, McGlown—who had initially been brought on to help design the payload’s inner workings—was appointed team leader and charged with overseeing each group’s design, as well as testing all the components individually and as a whole.
For the next year, McGlown checked in with the teams as they engineered every aspect of the communications and diagnostic device. “I learned a lot along the way,” McGlown says. “I also received a lot of helpful guidance because this was so new to me. Not only had I not led a team before, but all of the work I’d done in the past was designed to go one way—into space and into orbit. I’d never worked on a project that would return to Earth.”
For example, one of the first problems McGlown and his team had to solve was how to protect the payload’s electronics from the intense aerodynamic heat the payload would encounter upon reentering the atmosphere. The solution? A silicon-based heat shield, designed by members of the Lab’s Materials Science and Technology division, that coated the entire payload and was capable of withstanding temperatures of the thousands of degrees Fahrenheit.
One of the last problems the team had to solve was how to make the payload fall back to Earth and land in a very precise location. A spinning, uncontrollable object hurling 60 miles toward earth could land anywhere. The team turned to tungsten. A 17-pound cube of the element, no larger than a coffee cup, was milled to fit at the top of the payload and would act as a ballast to force the payload to fall nose down.
“That was a really exciting moment—once we figured out how to make everything fit, and we tested it sufficiently,” McGlown says. “Then we realized we still needed to launch it all on a rocket, and we begin to worry all over again.”
Ready to launch
Around 8:40 a.m., the Los Alamos employees who weren’t in mission control gathered on bleachers. Many of them had brought their families, and children eagerly craned their necks to see the rocket in the distance.
“T-minus 30 seconds,” Larson’s voice sounded from the loudspeaker.
The crowd hushed as the countdown reached its final moments, “Five... four... three... two...” and the last word was cut off by a massive boom. In a second, the rocket became a white streak slicing through the clouds. The rumble from its motor grew increasingly faint.
But the flight test wasn’t complete just yet. The week before, the team decided it would be helpful—perhaps mostly to relieve their anticipation—to receive a live download of flight diagnostics relayed from the payload to the satellite to a makeshift monitoring station. Now, some of the Los Alamos team gathered around the station, set up on a plastic folding table.
“How long do you think it will take until we hear something back?” Tucker asked.
“Probably a few minutes,” someone in the crowd replied.
But then, as if on cue, the blank laptop screen began to fill with numbers. One line, then two lines, then half a page. The payload had successfully communicated with the satellite, and the team was receiving live flight information.
“We nailed it,” said McGlown, walking out of mission control.
“We received a lot more information than we anticipated, and we’re just beginning to go through it,” Tucker said a few days after the launch. “But already, we know we have some really interesting data.”
With ReDX-1 a success, Los Alamos plans to carry out two of these flight tests per year for five years. The potential cost savings of these tests, compared with how they were once conducted, will be at least hundreds of millions of dollars, probably more. Going forward, these flight tests will become more complicated and technical until researchers are ready for full-scale tests in rockets that more closely simulate an actual missile launch.
“The ReDX-1 flight test is just the first example of a unique collaboration between the Laboratory, Up Aerospace, and Spaceport America,” says Bob Webster, deputy Laboratory director for Weapons at Los Alamos. “By exploiting the revolution in commercial space flight, we can give our staff the chance to learn and innovate at a high rate and in a cost-effective manner. And there’s nothing like an encounter with reality to focus the mind.”
Back on earth
After some of the excitement had died down, members of the ReDx-1 team stepped onto a Black Hawk helicopter, which then soared over the mountains to White Sands Missile Range to recover the payload. It took some time, but eventually the payload was found—buried two feet underground but almost completely intact.
STOCKPILE RESPONSIVENESS PROGRAM OBJECTIVES
• Identify, sustain, enhance, integrate, and continually exercise all of the capabilities, infrastructure, tools, and technologies across the science, engineering, design, certification, and manufacturing cycle required to carry out all phases of the joint nuclear weapons life cycle process*, with respect to both the nuclear security enterprise and relevant elements of the Department of Defense.
• Identify, enhance, and transfer knowledge, skills, and direct experience with respect to all phases of the joint nuclear weapons lifecycle process from one generation of nuclear weapon designers and engineers to the following generation.
• Periodically demonstrate stockpile responsiveness throughout the range of capabilities as required, such as through the use of prototypes, flight testing, and development of plans for certification without the need for nuclear explosive testing.
• Shorten design, certification, and manufacturing cycles and timelines to minimize the amount of time and costs leading to an engineering prototype and production.
• Continually exercise processes for the integration and coordination of all relevant elements and processes of the [National Nuclear Security] Administration and the Department of Defense required to ensure stockpile responsiveness.
• The retention of the ability, in coordination with the Director of National Intelligence, to assess and develop prototype nuclear weapons of foreign countries if needed to meet intelligence requirements and, if necessary, to conduct no-yield testing of those prototypes.
* The process developed and maintained by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Energy for the development, production, maintenance, and retirement of nuclear weapons.