The O Prize

Will Rocketplane launch spacecraft from Oklahoma?

A computational fluid dynamics image shows how air would behave when Rocketplane XP flies at 2.74 times the speed of sound; red is high pressure, blue is low. (NASA)
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WHEN THE ANSARI X-PRIZE was awarded in 2004 to Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites for making the first privately funded manned trips to space, the other teams that had been vying for the $10 million prize money, though no doubt disappointed, kept plugging away at their designs for commercial spacecraft. Some, Rocketplane Global among them, are now racing to be the first to offer suborbital tourist flights; I chronicle these efforts in my recent book Rocketeers.

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Since the book was printed, Rocketplane hit some turbulence on the way toward launching Rocketplane XP, its space tourism vehicle. In August 2006, the company won a contract through NASA’s new Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program to develop orbital cargo ships for servicing the International Space Station. Because the NASA money is earmarked strictly for orbital ships, the company began channeling its engineering resources away from the suborbital Rocketplane XP and into an orbital spaceship under development by Rocketplane’s newly acquired Kistler Aerospace.

The decision delayed launch of the suborbital vehicle by at least a year; the first flight is now planned for 2009 instead of 2008, and only if the company can raise additional funds. Among the casualties of the work slowdown: chief engineer David Urie, who was laid off last May. The company also says to expect changes in Rocketplane XP. “It will still have the same bizjet look,” says Rocketplane’s George French III, and the mission profile will be the same. As this issue of Air & Space/Smithsonian went to press, the company had not released specific information about the modifications.

In the meantime, the contest for the suborbital tourism market has a new entrant. In June, EADS Astrium, a division of the formidable European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, announced its design for a tourist spaceship. EADS Astrium’s vehicle, which has yet to receive a name, will send four passengers and a pilot into space, using twin jet engines to climb to 39,000 feet before firing a rocket engine fueled by methane and liquid oxygen. The design bears more than a passing resemblance to Rocketplane XP. Explains Astrium chief technical officer Robert Lainé: “A self-propelled plane is going to be the best for the operator because then they can fly from [any] airport,” with no special launch infrastructure required.

The following excerpt from the book Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots is Boldy Privatizing Space, by Michael Belfiore, is reprinted by permission of Smithsonian Books/Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins publishers.

In April 2005, I had dinner with Rocketplane business development manager Chuck Lauer at an Oklahoma City sushi bar, along with the company’s Japanese business representative and Reda Anderson, the first person to pay for a ride on the company’s Rocketplane XP.

Anderson stabbed a finger at Lauer and said, “You have one year to find me a man.”

“Me?” laughed Lauer. “You have to do that.”

“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.

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