It still costs an arm and a leg (and sometimes an entire Antares rocket) to lift crews and cargo into space. So until we get around to building that space elevator we've always wanted, NASA will just have to use this drone-towed, pilot-less, rocket-launching glider.
It's called the Towed Glider Air-Launch System (TGALS) and it's designed to launch orbital rockets from high altitude at a fraction of the cost of current methods. So instead of trying to dead lift loads straight up through the atmosphere (and directly against the pull of gravity) atop an SLS rocket, this method gives the launch a running — or rather, flying — start.
The TGALS in flight Image: NASA
The twin-fuselage glider is towed behind the the Dryden Remotely Operated Integrated Drone (DROID) to an altitude of 12km. At that height, the tow line is disconnected and the glider is set loose with a rocket-propelled payload strapped to its belly. As soon as the glider's flight has stabilised, the rocket is launched to climb into space and unleash its orbital cargo while the glider gently floats back to Earth.
The DROID UAS next to an F-16 escort plane. Picture: NASA.
NASA successfully tested its 1/3-scale prototype (which still measured 8m wingtip to wingtip) earlier this week at Edwards AFB in California as part of the Armstrong Flight Research Center's Space Technology Mission Directorate's Game Changing Development program. This test did not include a rocket launch, but rather it was a dry run to ensure that the glider's mix of OTS and custom built components could hold together during its powered flight and landing. Turns out it totally did; bring on the rockets. [NASA]