The O Prize
Will Rocketplane launch spacecraft from Oklahoma?
- By Michael Belfiore
- Air & Space magazine, November 2007
(Page 2 of 6)
“I can’t do that,” said Anderson. “I’ve tried.”
Lauer had just finished describing the marketing scheme he and our other tablemate, Ms. Misuzu Onuki, had hatched: Rocketplane would host the first wedding in space.
Rocketplane XP would be a suborbital vehicle, imparting only four minutes of weightlessness after its rocket engine cut off and it coasted out of the atmosphere at supersonic speed. The bride and groom would have to work fast, and in cramped quarters. The ship would have four seats. The pilot would have his hands full flying it. The bride and groom would ride in the back. That left the right front seat for a priest, rabbi, or justice of the peace. Nevertheless, Onuki had already been collaborating with a fashion designer in Japan on a dress whose white trusses would rise in graceful undulating ripples below the bride’s seatbelts when weightless.
Much as Anderson liked the idea, she lacked a crucial ingredient: a groom.
At 66, she doesn’t look anywhere near her age. Slim and athletic, she smiles easily and laughs often, but steel in her eye hints at the no-holds-barred deal-making that earned her a minor fortune in California real estate.
After watching Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne rocket into space on June 21, 2004, Anderson couldn’t resist the idea of going herself. Only days after that company won the X-Prize, Anderson met Lauer at a space conference, and after Lauer gave her the Rocketplane pitch, she asked for a business card. She wrote “Number one signed customer” on the back of it, signed it, wrapped a dollar bill around it, and handed it back. Lauer later explained, “The dollar made it a genuine contract.” Lauer had once been a real estate wheeler-dealer himself; the two spoke the same language.
Lauer had always thought that providing tourist flights to space made good business sense, even when it was unfashionable to think so. Back in mid-1995, when he’d co-founded Rocketplane, the prevailing wisdom among rocketeers was that the real money to be made was in satellite launchers. No one would take the company seriously, his board told him, if one of its principals went around talking about sending people into space for fun. Then, in the late 1990s, the bottom dropped out of the satellite launch market, and in 2001, Dennis Tito became the first passenger to buy a ride into space, shelling out $20 million for a trip on a Soyuz spacecraft. Clearly, there was a market for space tourism.
ONE DAY IN APRIL 2006 found Anderson peering down the throat of a sawed-off Learjet 25 fuselage at Rocketplane’s workshop at the airport in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Structural engineer Derrick Seys pointed to guidelines marked on the white hull like those drawn on a patient’s skin before surgery. He explained how his team would splice in part of another salvaged fuselage to lengthen the original by a good 20 inches—space needed for kerosene and liquid oxygen tanks that would power a 36,000-pound-thrust rocket engine in the craft’s tail.