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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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.

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.

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