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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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.

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.

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