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Image: Silver Dart
PlanetSpace
An artist's conception shows the Silver Dart hypersonic glider in orbit. The design is based on the FDL-7 concept, which was pioneered by the U.S. Air Force's Flight Dynamics Laboratory but discarded.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 12/15/2005 8:17:03 AM ET 2005-12-15T13:17:03

For years, rocketeer Geoff Sheerin has been hitching his star to a 60-year-old rocket design — the German V-2 rocket, which was adapted by the Soviets and Americans after World War II, then adapted again for Sheerin's Canadian Arrow project.

The suborbital Canadian Arrow hasn't yet gotten off the ground, but Sheerin and his new business partner, Chirinjeev Kathuria, have added another project to their PlanetSpace portfolio: a space glider called the Silver Dart, which is inspired by a 40-year-old design that was developed by Air Force researchers, only to be abandoned.

"We've gone 20 years ahead," Sheerin told MSNBC.com half-jokingly in advance of Thursday's announcement. He and Kathuria, an Indian-American entrepreneur, plan to turn the 1960s-era FDL-7 hypersonic glider design into a proposal for NASA's latest program to commercialize transport services for the international space station.

Skeptics might say that PlanetSpace is already biting off more than it can chew: When the Canadian-American venture was formed, only seven months ago, it announced its intention to start flying paying customers to the edge of space by mid-2007. Just last month, PlanetSpace said it had forged a partnership with ARCA, a Romanian startup that is also trying to develop a suborbital spaceship.

PlanetSpace has had to cope with months of delay in the testing schedule for the V-2-based Canadian Arrow, due to the regulatory requirements for getting clearance to launch from the intended launch site at Ontario's Cape Rich. And Sheerin said design work on the Silver Dart could create further delays for the less ambitious Canadian Arrow.

"It is an interruption," he acknowledged.

So why take on the Silver Dart? Two recent developments are behind the shift, Sheerin said.

Focusing on February
Sheerin said he has been working undercover on the glider design over the past four years with aerospace expert Paul Czsyz — who was part of the original FDL-7 project in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is now a professor emeritus at St. Louis University.

According to Czsyz, the FDL-7 hypersonic vehicle was designed by the U.S. Air Force's Flight Dynamics Laboratory to support what would have been the military's Manned Orbital Laboratory. The space glider idea was abandoned in the late 1960s when the U.S. government decided against creating a military space station, but even in the mid-1970s, the design was adapted for an experimental aircraft design known as the X-24B.

"It's a good vehicle," Czsyz told MSNBC.com. "There were lots and lots and lots of hours of testing that were done."

PlanetSpace had planned to take the wraps off Czsyz's work in 2008, after the Canadian Arrow started service. But then NASA announced that it would open up the market for crew and cargo transport to and from the international space station, with proposals due next February. Moreover, Czsyz and a co-author recently finished writing a book that touted the advantages of the FDL-7, "Future Spacecraft Propulsion Systems," with publication also scheduled in February.

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"He was about to tell the world what a great vehicle was never built," Sheerin said. "It's good for the industry to see this. It's good for this fledgling space industry, and I think you'll find some of the big aerospace companies will partner with the smaller companies to go after this as well."

That's why PlanetSpace has eased back on development of the Canadian Arrow and is focusing on submitting a Silver Dart proposal to NASA by February.

"If we were to win the proposal, we would get financing from NASA, from us, and from the banks," Kathuria said. "The cost is really not that much. What you're really doing is clustering 10 V-2 engines on the Canadian Arrow, and putting the Silver Dart on top of it."

Powered by that 700,000 pounds of thrust, the 45-foot-long craft could bring eight people to orbit, and bring that many back down by flying a gliding route to a runway landing.

"It's like a DC-3," Czsyz told MSNBC.com. "You fuel it, it comes down and you use it again."

Other contenders
PlanetSpace isn't the only company going after the NASA money, of course. Among the other contenders are Transformational Space Corp., which has already started testing its Crew Transport Vehicle design; and SpaceDev, which has put forth a mini-shuttle concept based on yet another golden oldie , NASA's HL-20 design.

Even if PlanetSpace loses out in the competition, Sheerin doesn't intend to stick those Silver Dart plans back in the drawer. He said PlanetSpace was already "in negotiations with some major aerospace companies to fly components for this vehicle."

Kathuria, who made millions of dollars in the global telecommunication industry and used some of that cash to extend the life of Russia's Mir space station back in the year 2000, said the financing is in place for finishing the Canadian Arrow and flying commercial passengers.

Thus, the company could conceivably return to its original plan of getting the Canadian Arrow launches going on a regular basis by 2008 — then applying the revenue generated from suborbital passenger fares to the Silver Dart.

"Whether or not we end up getting a NASA award, we'll turn on that Silver Dart program," Sheerin said.

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