A rocket startup that was an also-ran in the $10 million X Prize private-spaceflight competition says it is gearing up to beat the prize-winning team to market with a low-cost suborbital space tourism operation, launching from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Aera Corp. says it intends to take on paying passengers by the end of next year — but it’s not yet clear whether the company will be able to stick to that timetable.
The claims seem bold — particularly considering that aerospace designer Burt Rutan, whose SpaceShipOne rocket plane won the X Prize last year, isn't expected to have Virgin Galactic's fleet of "SpaceShipTwo" passenger spaceships ready for commercial service before 2007 at the earliest.
With backing from software billionaire Paul Allen, Rutan and his Scaled Composites team flight-tested SpaceShipOne and its White Knight carrier airplane for more than two years before last autumn's prize-winning spaceflight. In contrast, Aera, which was known as American Astronautics during the X Prize race, hasn't yet launched a single test vehicle.
"Most of the testing that's been done has been computer-based modeling," said Lewis Reynolds, Aera's president and chief operating officer. "We have done very little in the way of testing actual physical components for the spacecraft, but we'll be doing more of that as time goes forward."
Air Force deal
The company is getting its paperwork in order for future flights, however. On Monday, Aera announced that it has signed a five-year launch support agreement with the U.S. Air Force, governing its access to Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida.
“As we do with all launch customers, we'll be providing oversight to ensure flight and public safety attention is maintained,” said Rick Blucker, chief of plans and programs for the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral.
Maj. Adriane Craig, a spokeswoman for the 45th Space Wing, said the agreement did not yet guarantee that Aera would launch from Cape Canaveral.
"This is a first step that lays out the rules and responsibilities for each of the parties," she told MSNBC.com. "It's a building-block approach. The next step is for the company to come back with a list of what they need."
Reynolds told MSNBC.com that his company has had discussions with the Federal Aviation Administration as well as the Air Force, and that Aera intended to apply for an FAA launch license within 30 days.
Currently, Aera has a research-and-development facility in Temecula, Calif., a couple of hours' drive southeast of Rutan's headquarters in Mojave. Reynolds said his timetable called for securing a manufacturing facility for Aera's seven-seat spaceship, the Altairis, by the end of April, with an assembly line starting up two months afterward.
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"We hope to have a vehicle flying in the fall of 2006, and we hope to have our first paying customer before the end of 2006," he said.
Aera has not yet publicized any designs for the Altairis, but Reynolds said the spacecraft would look similar to American Astronautics' X Prize entry: It would launch vertically and rise to an altitude of 75 miles (120 kilometers), where passengers could experience weightlessness for several minutes and see the curvature of the earth below the blackness of space. The parafoil-equipped craft would then re-enter the atmosphere and glide to a cushioned, horizontal landing.
Like the X Prize entry, the Altairis would be computer-controlled. A "mission commander" would be on board to assist the six paying passengers and deal with emergencies should they arise.
Veteran aerospace executive Bill Sprague, who founded American Astronautics in 2002 and is the principal designer of the Altairis, was fond of saying that his team was capable of making a surprising bid for the X Prize — but nothing ever came of it. Reynolds, who came to Aera from the world of high finance, says things will be different this time.
"American Astronautics did not have enough capital to bring things to fruition," Reynolds said, "but fortunately, because of Burt Rutan's flight, there's a lot of interest from the business community — including myself."
Rocket round upReynolds said the reorganized corporation has attracted a "fairly significant" initial investment from a venture capital fund that he declined to name. He acknowledged, however, that the capital currently on hand "is not enough to accomplish our goals at this point." Continued backing would depend on Aera's ability to hit its business development milestones, he said.
He declined to provide precise figures on projected costs or pricing, but said Aera's assembly-line plan should bring down the cost of producing each spacecraft. The business plan calls for producing six reusable Altairis vehicles in the first year, Reynolds said.
"Burt Rutan spent about $20 million producing SpaceShipOne," he noted. "The costs of our individual spacecraft are much lower than that, and the cost of our overall operation is much higher than that."
As for the projected price of a suborbital ride, Reynolds said "our pricing decisions will be made based on the competitive landscape, like it would be for any product." Virgin Galactic has said trips on its Rutan-designed spacecraft would be part of a tourism package priced at roughly $200,000.
Will performance match the press releases?
Aera's plans may sound grand — but it remains to be seen whether the reality will match the computer simulations and the press releases. During last year's critical phase of the X Prize race, American Astronautics' efforts merited little public notice. But Reynolds said that obscurity was by design.
"We felt like it was to our benefit to maintain a low profile while assembling the pieces that we need to make us successful," he said.
And Reynolds has laid out even grander plans for the longer term: "We already have a working design for an orbital spacecraft. The success of the suborbital operation will influence when we bring that craft to market."
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