The O Prize
Will Rocketplane launch spacecraft from Oklahoma?
- By Michael Belfiore
- Air & Space magazine, November 2007
(Page 3 of 6)
According to company engineer Bob Seto, starting with an existing fuselage made more sense than designing one from scratch. “There’s a big cost to designing the details of a fuselage,” he said. “Purchasing the fuselage reduced a lot of that risk and development effort. We don’t have to spend a large amount of time starting from a blank sheet of paper.” Bill Lear’s business jet can take 3-plus Gs without breaking up, and has an operational ceiling around 50,000 feet—above 90 percent of the atmosphere.
Rocketplane would replace the Learjet’s horizontal stabilizers with a V-tail that would better enable the plane’s nose to pitch up coming off the runway with a heavy load of fuel. The Learjet’s wings would be replaced by a new delta-shaped assembly that was optimized for supersonic flight and, like the original wings, would hold jet fuel. The wing assembly and tail would also give the ship the extra structural hardiness it needed for the 4-G spaceflight.
By the time workers finished transforming the gutted shell into the Rocketplane XP, there wouldn’t be much left of the Learjet: just that fuselage, or rather two fuselages, and the Learjet 25’s standard pair of General Electric CJ610 jet engines. The engines would power the spaceship to a launch altitude of 25,000 feet. There, the pilot would shut down the jets and light the rocket engine for a 70-second boost to space and a maximum speed of three and a half times the speed of sound. After the rocket engine shut down, Anderson would get four minutes of weightlessness, a view extending as far south as the Gulf of Mexico and west to the Rocky Mountains, and, with any luck, her wedding-day kiss.
A personal display for each passenger would let everyone toggle through views piped in from seven cameras around the craft. For good measure, the pilot would use the ship’s reaction-control system (RCS) to roll the craft so all the windows got a good look at Earth.
The Rocketplane XP pilot would navigate the changes in pressure and speed experienced during reentry by using computerized flight controls. And the engineers would give Rocketplane XP at least one advantage over SpaceShipOne. As the ship left and then reentered the atmosphere, the XP’s computers would blend RCS control with inputs from standard airplane control surfaces, providing seamless control at all phases of the flight. The XP’s computers would fly the ship from boost to reentry, with the pilot taking over only in an emergency and for landings. The pilot would restart the jet engines at 20,000 feet for a powered landing. Total flight time: 60 minutes.
The idea had been hatched by Mitchell Burnside Clapp, an aerospace engineer and former test pilot instructor for the Air Force, as a way to get himself to space. While still in the Air Force, Burnside Clapp decided to try to resurrect a perennial Air Force dream: building a manned spaceship the armed forces could call their own. His initial idea was for a single-seat rocketplane, one that could rocket into orbit to launch small satellites.
Burnside Clapp left the Air Force to pursue a commercial version of the ship, forming Pioneer Rocketplane in 1996 with Chuck Lauer and aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin (best known for the concept of manned expeditions to Mars making their own return fuel from elements of the Martian atmosphere). Pioneer Rocketplane set its sights on the X-Prize, but it was chronically short of funds. Zubrin left the company in 1998.
In 2003, the company got a fresh cash infusion from a new president, Wisconsin outdoor advertising businessman and space enthusiast George French, who had been an early investor. As 2003 drew to a close, French, Lauer, and Burnside Clapp saw within their reach a cash award that was worth even more than the X-Prize. They called it the O-Prize.