The O Prize
Will Rocketplane launch spacecraft from Oklahoma?
- By Michael Belfiore
- Air & Space magazine, November 2007
(Page 4 of 6)
The state of Oklahoma needed good jobs; young graduates who couldn’t find work in the state were leaving to seek work elsewhere. The solution Oklahoma came up with: provide tax credits to technology companies. In exchange, the company would have to be headquartered in Oklahoma, have at least $10 million already invested in it, and demonstrate that it really would produce new jobs for the state.
The Oklahoma Space Industry Tax Incentive was worth $18 million in tax credits. The beauty of the credits was that they were transferrable—the company that got them could sell them for cash.
The O-Prize had to be won before 2004. Rocketplane beat out its competitors to win the prize in the final hour: at 4:42 p.m. on December 31, 2003. French then sold the credits for $13 million, and at last the Rocketplane XP had wings.
Early in 2004, French brought in aerospace engineer David Urie to lead the Rocketplane design team. Not long afterward, Burnside Clapp quit the company. “ ‘Citing creative differences’ is the standard Hollywood way to say that, right?” he said to me. He declined to elaborate except to say that he was skeptical of the idea that flying tourists in space was a viable business operation for something as cash-intensive as building and flying a spaceship.
French would have been hard-pressed to come up with a better engineering chief than David Urie. Urie came to Rocketplane after 30 years’ experience as an engineer and manager at Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works. During his 50 years at aerospace companies like Boeing and Douglas Missiles, he worked on 35 types of aircraft, from long-haul bombers to missiles.
Urie couldn’t resist coming out of retirement to work on one last bold aerospace engineering project. The chance to fly into the market under the radars of monolithic aerospace companies like Urie’s previous employer was just too good to pass up.
Once settled at Rocketplane’s new headquarters, a single-story building at Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers Airport, Urie set about hiring a team of engineers composed of equal parts seasoned veterans and young engineers right out of school. One of Urie’s prime hires was engineer Bob Seto, who took over the day-to-day operation of building Rocketplane XP. Talking to him made the whole enterprise sound almost reasonable to me.
Seto explained that at a maximum velocity of three to four times the speed of sound, Rocketplane XP wouldn’t experience anywhere near the heating from atmospheric friction that the space shuttle, traveling at 25 times the speed of sound, encounters returning from orbit. Nevertheless, reentry heat would pose a problem for an ordinary Learjet’s aluminum structure. Aluminum, used for airframes because of its light weight, melts at a lower temperature than a heavier metal like steel.