An Oklahoma space-travel company says it is aiming to win the race to put paying passengers on suborbital trips, with commercial flights scheduled to begin by early 2007.
"We intend to make it a five-star experience," said David Urie, vice president of Rocketplane Ltd.
Urie discussed his company's ambitions this week during a meeting of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority and a follow-up telephone interview with MSNBC.com.
Rocketplane is working on the plans to convert a twin-engine LearJet into a hybrid space plane. The Rocketplane XP craft would use a jet engine to take off from the former Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base at Burns Flat, Okla., which has the country's fourth-longest runway. When the plane reaches an altitude of 22,000 feet, a rocket engine in the tail would kick in — shooting the pilot and two passengers above the 62-mile (100-kilometer) mark, which is considered the boundary of outer space.
From that height, the fliers could see the earth's curvature beneath the blackness of space — then come back down for a conventional horizontal landing.
"We'll provide maybe three to four minutes of a sensation of weightlessness between the time the rocket shuts down and you encounter thick air again," Urie said. The flight itself would last about 45 minutes, but the tour package would also include four days of health tests and training, plus an after-flight banquet.
The plans put Rocketplane in competition with several other spaceship developers who are also working toward beginning service in the 2007-2008 time frame:
- Virgin Galactic is taking reservations for suborbital flight packages beginning in 2008, with an estimated price tag of $200,000.
- Aera Corp. has announced a schedule to begin commercial launches from Cape Canaveral by the end of 2006 and is taking reservations for $150,000 flight packages.
- PlanetSpace plans to have its Canadian Arrow spaceship ready for suborbital service by mid-2007, at a target price of $250,000 per seat.
- Blue Origin says it plans to begin testing its vertical-takeoff-and-landing spaceship in West Texas next year, with commercial flights anticipated three to five years later.
Urie said his company was aiming to win the commercial space race by capitalizing on solid expertise and financial support: "The one thing we have going is that I set out to build a company and not a vehicle, and I have recruited a very strong team of solid aerospace professionals."
The bulk of Rocketplane's private investment so far has come from George French, the company's president and chief executive officer, Urie said. The company has also benefited from the resale of marketable investment tax credits provided in a $15 million deal with the state of Oklahoma. "That contributed a substantial amount to our start-up funding," he said.
The Rocketplane XP development project was "still in the electronic and paper stage, doing testing, analysis and designs," Urie said. However, he said Rocketplane has built the first actual part for the conversion.
"A wing spar has been completed and has undergone inspection," he said.
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He pointed out that the LearJet model to be converted already has been certified for an altitude of 51,000 feet, and that the pressure difference between that height and the 62-mile mark was "about one-tenth of an atmosphere." For the craft's rocket engine, Rocketplane has selected the Rocketdyne RS-88, a pressure-fed liquid oxygen/alcohol-fueled thruster, Urie said.
The company has a marketing agreement with Florida-based Incredible Adventures and is negotiating another nonexclusive deal with Virginia-based Space Adventures to sell seats, he said. The tour packages would be priced in the $150,000 to $200,000 range, he said, but the company has not determined when they'll go on sale.
Flight tests are to begin next year, but Urie said Rocketplane still needed to get its launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. "We have pretty much kept up the pace with their requests for our safety plans and mission control plans," he said.
The Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority's chairman, Ken McGill, said during this Wednesday's meeting in Tulsa that the FAA could grant a spaceport license to the Burns Flat facility by the end of the year.
FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed that the agency has had discussions with the Rocketplane and the Oklahoma space authority, "but we haven't received a substantially complete application." That means the 180-day application review period has not yet begun.
The Oklahoma Legislature created the space authority back in 1999 to help lure a chunk of the spaceflight business to the area, and since then the state has become home to Rocketplane as well as another suborbital space company, TGV Rockets.
During Friday's interview with MSNBC.com, Urie paid tribute to last year's SpaceShipOne flights in California, which won the $10 million X Prize, set the stage for Virgin Galactic's follow-on commercial venture and spurred hopes for creating a private-sector space tourism industry.
"We try to minimize the flash," Urie said, "but it's an interesting area now that Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites team were so successful with the X Prize and [Virgin billionaire] Richard Branson has stepped in. It's raised interest around the country in this enterprise. It's an interesting market, that allows baby steps into space."
This report includes information from The Associated Press in Tulsa.
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