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Rocketplane XP over spaceport
Urie believes the Rocketplane XP is on track to begin commercial service out of the Oklahoma Spaceport in 2007. (credit: Rocketplane Ltd.)

Rocket plane venture star (part 2)

Remembering VentureStar

TSR: What did you do to become engineer of the year?

Urie: Actually it had little to do with engineering. It was for—I don’t know—the inscription is on there, if you want to know. That is what they said I did.

TSR: “Presented to provide unique recognition to an individual who has distinguished himself in some facet of aerospace engineering. For leadership, vision, communication skills and tenacity for shaping the national space transportation policy making it possible for advanced technologies to be applied to national space needs.” So is that saying, “We really wanted to have VentureStar—thanks for trying!”

Urie: Yeah, I think that is what it says.

TSR: So did you guys have a full build plan. I mean like L-1011? Were you ready to roll out a fleet of these things?

Urie: In fact, the X-33 was an interruption to the VentureStar program.

TSR: Wow! How much money do you think would have completed the project?

Urie: To complete the flight test, my estimate was just short of $3 billion.

TSR: But no interest. They did not have the vision to—

As originally designed, VentureStar “would launch anything. It was designed to be an 18-wheeler to low Earth orbit. That was the idea. It was a good truck to take things to low Earth orbit. No people.”

Urie: The market collapsed. At the time it was originally proposed and Lockheed management came aboard, and then Lockheed Martin management came aboard. Even when a famous cynic like Norm Augustine likes it. You have go to be encouraged.

TSR: So they were ready to launch these fleets of telecom satellites that were on the horizon.

Urie: Anything. It would launch anything. It was designed to be an 18-wheeler to low Earth orbit. That was the idea. It was a good truck to take things to low Earth orbit. No people.

TSR: Shuttle Two.

Urie: No, it was a reusable Titan-class launcher. It was an autonomous launcher. It was not Shuttle Two.

TSR: Did it have a pilot?

Urie: No, it was an autonomous launcher.

TSR: It looked like a plane. It was a big UAV.

Urie: It was a UAV. Essentially the original concept was it was nothing more than a reusable Titan-class launch vehicle.

TSR: Could you put people in the back?

Urie: No intent of that at all. It was not supposed to do anything that an expendable launcher would not do. It was a truck, not a bus.

TSR: Not a bus. That is very interesting. So now it is a much tighter environment, but people are the big [cargo]—

Urie: Right, we have completely changed course now. My thinking, “OK. Now we are going to haul people for fun and profit.” Their fun and our profit.

Licensing and testing

TSR: So you guys are a little better prepared for low demand scenarios and high demand scenarios. (See “Scenario planning for suborbital”, The Space Review, July 19, 2004.)

Urie: We have done as much work as we possibly can to flesh out a model of the market. And plan for a fairly broad set of possible developments.

TSR: What have you guys been saying about the minimal operational level?

Urie: We have not said anything about it. We are figuring we might be able to—

TSR: If you are making profit at $100,000 then you might be breaking even somewhere south of that.

Urie: Somewhere south of that, but again that is outside my domain. I design—

TSR: Design for safety at minimum cost and let the other guys worry about how to recover the dollars.

Urie: Yeah. I have a limited capability. And my capability is focused on developing the vehicle taking it from concept to reality. That is my box. And much interested as I am in the business as a whole, I simply do not have the time and energy to get too involved in it.

TSR: In terms of getting up and tested, I saw you were planning to start in 2007. Are you still planning to start in 2007?

Urie: We start operations, revenue operations, in 2007.

TSR: Assuming you get all the licensing?

My capability is focused on developing the vehicle taking it from concept to reality. And much interested as I am in the business as a whole, I simply do not have the time and energy to get too involved in it.

Urie: The licensing we are working [on] with FAA in real time to keep them current and us current of our thinking and them current of our development. We had our preliminary design review the first two days of this week (March 7–8). There was an FAA commercial space transportation guy there for the full two days. He was a very active participant, asked a lot of questions.

TSR: So when will you guys apply for your testing license?

Urie: We have applied for our overall license already. That was one of the first things we did.

TSR: Is the clock ticking? Have they said the license is complete?

Urie: No, they have not said our license is complete. The clock is [not] ticking. We are working. We are exchanging things. We are drafting safety plans. They’re reviewing them.

TSR: When do you want to start the launch operations for testing?

Urie: Well, first we’ll do aircraft operations, snd that will begin in October 2006. And we will try, we will probably get in maybe a dozen good flights. To get a good flight, a good flight means, you got all the data you wanted. There are always things that go wrong, like the data recorders don’t work. So we will probably have to do twice as many flights as we get good flights.

TSR: OK. That is a pretty good ratio.

Urie: It is. It takes, you know, scrutiny and diligence.

TSR: If everything goes well, you will be doing one every couple of weeks?

Urie: Oh we will probably fly more often than that, [if] things go well.

TSR: So you might really do the same as operations?

Urie: We might fly twice a week just like operations. One of the things we want to test is our ground operations.

TSR: Kind of like SpaceShipOne, if something funny happens, you will fix it, you will take a few days off.

Urie: Sure. We will think about it good and hard, and make sure we have got it fixed, then fly again. Then we will do about an equal number of rocket-powered flights. This whole thing will be run like a classic flight test program of expanding the envelope, but we will always take off at full gross weight. As we complete or do not complete our test card on each, we will simulate an abort from that condition. So all of our abort conditions will be covered as well as all of our normal operation conditions.

TSR: Right, so you will have extra flights to do extra abort conditions if you have not hit them already. You mean you will basically be flying as if you already have the passengers in it.

Urie: As if we have a payload and are fueled up for a full flight. We will always max out the airplane. We will always fill it with propellant and land with the propellant aboard just to do it. We’ve got the runway. You know. We have got this enormous runway.

TSR: How long is the runway?

Urie: For a B-52, it’s 4,000 meters. But there are two 150-meter extensions which were meant to stop B-52s. But they are runway to us because we are so light.

TSR: Neat so even fully loaded—

Urie: —the cement will never notice.

TSR: So is it your plan to do a traditional proposal where you outline everything you are going to test in the test plan to AST before you start, not build a little, test a little like some of your competitors [e.g. XCOR]?

Urie: We are going to lay out a full test plan and follow it. Build a little test a little is something you do before you fly.

TSR: So you guys are going to handle that all on the simulator.

Urie: Yeah. Wind tunnel, structures test labs, hot benches, and things like.

TSR: So you think you will know enough at that point to have a full test plan and complete it.

Urie: Yes. We are not doing anything that radical. Everything is pretty much—

TSR: Pretty boring.

Urie: Never boring.

TSR: Fun for the participants, but not really pushing the envelope on rocket science except on cash. Making a profit.

Urie: We want to do a flight that the X-15 did 45 years ago except that we want to do it reliably and safely and make it routine. Make it routine. The technology is to make it routine, not do the performance.

Commercial operations

TSR: Right, so it is really commercial, regular commercial operation.

Urie: Yeah.

TSR: X-15 had hundreds of flights.

Urie: And they were exploring the unknown. We did not know anything about hypersonic flight when they started flying.

TSR: Every flight was a big production. And yours? How many personnel are you going to have in operation?

Urie: We make that plan. But your going to—not counting back shops you might have a half dozen people on the ramp, including the fuelers and the checkers of this and checkers of that.

TSR: So it will not look too much different from a regular airport.

Urie: No.

TSR: That is great.

It is going to operate in one location. It is really just a glorified amusement park ride.

Urie: We try to make everything removable so if there is something wrong, it goes to a back shop. Just about everything should be easily removable except the main propellant tanks. Even the engine should be easily removable.

TSR: That is great. Maintainable, too.

Urie: Right.

TSR: How much range is it going to have? Are you going to start flying to New York?

Urie: No, definitely not. It is a one-trick pony. It is going to do its little number out at Burns Flat.

TSR: So you get to see Oklahoma?

Urie: We will see the Gulf.

TSR: So you are going to just have one base of operations?

Urie: Yes, for the first model we’re just going to have one base. It is going to operate in one location. It is really just a glorified amusement park ride.

TSR: The biggest roller coaster in the world.

Urie: That is all. That satisfies the business plan. Obviously we think of things beyond that. We will follow the market.

TSR: Are you taking reservations yet?

Urie: Yeah, we are. I believe you can do that on the web site. Also, there are two commercial organizations. One is already under agreement with us. That’s Incredible Adventures. Incredible is already booking. We are working out a deal with Space Adventures. They had one before. We rescinded it and are renegotiating it.

TSR: So are you guys fully funded?

Urie: Yes we are.

TSR: Awesome. The next milestone is people on the plane?

Urie: The next milestone is the critical design review, which marks the release of 90% of the drawings to the shop. That’s the next milestone. That’s probably around the beginning of September of this year.

TSR: The other 10%?

Urie: Oh, they are never finished, because those are the ones you keep changing. It’s going to be things like the pilot does not like the spring on the side stick controller. Or there is too much friction on the throttle—it is too sticky. Those damn things. They go on forever.

TSR: So there is a couple of guys assigned to the pilot. Who are your pilots?

Urie: Mitch [Burnside Clapp] wants to fly it. He invented this thing so he could fly it. And I’ve got a couple of other guys who I am getting in touch with who I have known from the past who are high-performance vehicle test pilots. One of them was an SR-71 pilot.

We had a house airplane all through the VentureStar program. We were constantly testing new systems on the airplane. We had Air Force flight crews that flew them. One of those guys I am going to get in touch with. There was a fellow who was on F-22 and F-35 and I will see if I can interest him. We need, you know, somebody to sit down and help us write test plans. All of that.

TSR: On the house airplane, the SR-71 had two seats, right? Did you ever get to go up in it?

Urie: No. That was reserved for the flight test engineer or VIPs.

TSR: So you did not qualify as a VIP.

Urie: I was not a VIP.

TSR: Did any VIPs ever get publicly announced?

Urie: I think so. Dan Goldin flew. Dr. [Sheila] Widnall, Secretary of the Air Force flew in it. Those were announced I think.

TSR: So you cannot buy a fighter flight like that right now in the States.

Urie: Not in the States. You have to go to Russia.

TSR: But if I was a VIP, I might be able to find some firm to fly me.

Urie: Our first flight I think Senator from Oklahoma [James] Inhofe says he wants to go. He’s an aviator.

TSR: I did not know that.

Urie: He recreated the Wiley Post round-the-world flight in his homebuilt. He is a ballsy guy.

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