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Rocketplane XP in flight
The Rocketplane XP is the latest project for David Urie, who has worked on cutting-edge aerospace efforts from the SR-71 to the X-33/VentureStar. (credit: Rocketplane Ltd.)

Rocket plane venture star (part 1)

The Space Review: All right! So, where did you start out? Before Lockheed, did you go to school somewhere?

David Urie: Oh gosh yes, I went to school somewhere. I went to college at University of Kansas. Then I was out of school for a while. And then I finished at Wichita State.

TSR: So you have been around?

Urie: I started working before then. My first job in the aircraft industry (space had not been invented yet) was, gosh, 52 years ago.

TSR: 52 years ago? So that was back in the day, huh?

Urie: I was working on a control research project at Cessna on an office-enabled research contract. It was interesting. That is one of those jobs that gets you hooked. It was, “Gee, this was fun.”

TSR: So I liked the parking warning [Blackbird SR-71 Parking only. All others will be intercepted]. Do you get many Blackbirds parking in the parking lot there?

Urie: A couple of my guys, they buy me stuff: the Blackbird parking sign, the little sign on my door. Every now and then something shows up.

TSR: So, so it’s a little different from big corporate here?

We are developing a commercial market. It is one that nobody had really thought about much, because we focused on good, solid, dirty-fingernails, workmanlike stuff like putting satellites in orbit.

Urie: Oh yeah. But it is not that much different from the Skunk Works. The Skunk Works was always so compartmentalized. Each project was like its own little company. Kelly Johnson, Ben Rich, and Norm Nelson, who was head of the Skunk Works for a while, always gave the program managers a lot of authority so you had your own little fiefdom there and ran it like your own company.

TSR: So was it compartmentalized for security, but also physically compartmentalized?

Urie: The office buildings at the facilities were all windowless. There was not a window in the place. All windowless.

TSR: I worked at IBM Research and no one could have a window. No one could have a corner office. Only the hallways could have windows.

Urie: There were no windows even in the hallways. It was just solid walls. And the hallways were featureless. It was something right out of Kafka.

TSR: Oh my!

Urie: And the doors don’t even have numbers. Soundproof doors.

TSR: Even at Los Alamos, the buildings at least had numbers.

Urie: The buildings had numbers, but you could not find them anywhere—you had to know. You would tell somebody, “he’s over on the third floor of 311.” And an insider would know what you meant, but an outsider would not have the vaguest notion of where to find it.

TSR: No markings huh?

Urie: Yeah.

TSR: Enemy spies had to be insiders or else they would not make too much headway?

Urie: That is right, you had to spend years working your way in.

TSR: How did you move your way over to the Skunk Works?

Urie: I was invited. We all had to be invited.

TSR: What did you do to distinguish yourself to get invited?

Urie: I do not know. You just never know. Someone gets the idea you would be useful there and away you go.

TSR: So did you start as a project manager there?

Urie: So what did I start as? I started at the Skunk Works as the head of aerodynamics on a project. That is what I had been doing before. But I had managed programs on the white sides. I had managed programs that I started. I mean I thought them up and got them sold.

TSR: Basically you had an internal proposal and then sold it?

Urie: They would ok it for an external proposal and that sort of thing. Start out with some independent R&D—or “IRAD” we always called it—“get a little IRAD”. You get to the point. Boy you could tell if there was anything to it or just a will-o’-the-wisp. Then you would get some support. They would provide you with a little bid and proposal money and you could go travel around and talk to NASA Centers or Air Force Commands or whatever. And Washington—always Washington.

TSR: It was the height of the cold war so there was a lot of money there.

Urie: All my life I was a cold warrior and space racer. That is what we did in those times.

TSR: A little harder to squeeze money out these days?

Urie: Oh much harder, much harder. That’s why we are commercial here. We are developing a commercial market. It is one that nobody had really thought about much, because we focused on good, solid, dirty-fingernails, workmanlike stuff like putting satellites in orbit.

TSR: Heinlein said, “Here is what spacefaring looks like. Eventually you’re going to have people on the moon.”

Urie: Some of the visionaries had thought of that. One way that you really expand is just curious travelers. That is how you expand frontiers. A lot of people are curious.

TSR: So it is not until the X Prize…

Urie: X Prize was a good thing. We joined that even knowing we were not competitors for the prize. Just to support the process. This is a good thing. You know, let us try to keep this ball rolling.

Operating the Rocketplane

TSR: Do you guys think you are going to be able to eventually do that five-day turnaround for your vehicle?

Urie: Sure. We are designing for a surge operation 24-hour turnaround.

TSR: Oh wow. So three flights on President’s Day weekend?

No spare aircraft. If we lose the aircraft, we’re out of business anyway.

Urie: Something like that. If the ship comes back “code one” you can service it easily in 24 hours. Our objective is two flights a week. If we have got to remove and replace the kind of things that you anticipate, then you can do it in, you know, half a week.

TSR: So are you going to have two planes at first?

Urie: We will go into business with one. And we will add another one as the market warrants. Our business plan just is based on one.

TSR: Are you worried about, if you need to repair the vehicle, having to cancel a bunch of flights?

Urie: Sure, you always worry about that.

TSR: So, but rather than wait until you have two or three, your test article will be your—

Urie: Our test article will be an operational vehicle. There’s a lot of precedent for that.

TSR: Well, of course. But no spares.

Urie: We are planning for spares. We will have a spare stream set up. No spare aircraft. Because we do not expect to [need one]. If we lose the aircraft, we’re out of business anyway.

TSR: So you are not going to insure it?

Urie: Well, I think it would be just be fatal to the business. To lose one.

TSR: I see.

Urie: That is over.

TSR: So everyone would say, “Hmmm, I guess we can’t use them. I don’t want to fly that.” So I guess given that, you might as well assume that the plane is going to work at least from nobody-getting-hurt perspective.

Urie: Yeah, right.

TSR: It will fly back whole or else we won’t have a business to fix it.

Urie: We are going to insure it, obviously. So if a roof panel in the hangar falls in on it—

TSR: But not, you know, loss of business insurance.

Urie: Somebody backs a tractor into it, that kind of thing.

TSR: You are still required to hold a bunch of insurance, right, for the liability?

Urie: For the liability, obviously we carry a lot of that.

TSR: Are you planning to go beyond than the federal minimums as far as insurance?

Urie: Not my decision.

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