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Rocketplane engineering meeting
Rocketplane’s engineering team convenes a meeting in late 2004. (credit: Rocketplane Ltd.)

Rocket plane venture star (part 3)

Mike Griffin and Dennis Tito

TSR: There is a lot of lost human capital from the space program. You really have to recreate and bootstrap yourself.

Urie: There is a lot of engineering talent that is… trapped in NASA. Enormous amount of talent that is walled off in NASA castles around the country that I would love to use. So we are trying to work Space Act agreements with all the centers to get people to work on our programs.

TSR: Bigelow was successful with that.

Urie: You get superb technology, superb talent that way, to work on your problems. They are not doing anything for NASA. NASA does not have anything to do. Now Mike Griffin—Mike is going to be a real breath of fresh air. The new nominee for administrator.

TSR: Why do you say that?

Urie: I met him a dozen years ago. I was just making the rounds in Washington promoting a single stage to orbit concept that became VentureStar. He was an [associate administrator (AA)] then. I forget which one. He and another AA across the table. I went over my scheme with them. He did not get into any of the technical details. He did not challenge anything. He said, “Can it land on the Moon?” I like this guy.

TSR: Sounds like me. I am going to like this guy.

Urie: You are. I am going to like him. We are all going to like him.

TSR: I was a little worried that he mostly did robotics at NASA.

Urie: He did anything that they handed him. He published a book on spacecraft design. He and Jim French, no relation to our George. It is the basic classic introductory book on spacecraft design. It’s published by the AIAA. It is one of their most popular books.

TSR: Do you think NASA is going to come around to supporting civilian space travel?

Urie: I think NASA is going to come back to life. It is what I think.

TSR: So they were a little unhappy about Dennis Tito showing up at the space station.

“I went over my scheme with them. [Griffin] did not get into any of the technical details. He did not challenge anything. He said, ‘Can it land on the Moon?’ I like this guy.”

Urie: I have had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Dennis Tito, George French, Eric Rice, and Jim Stewart. Got an afternoon with Dennis seeking investment. He said he was not going to invest in our project. I will not tell you why. It had nothing to do with what we’re doing. It was something else. We spent the entire afternoon. His afternoon is valuable. We were talking space and space flight stuff. He showed us all his toys, all his mementos. He told us about his experience. He said, “If I had 20 million and one dollar I would do it.” It was so great. It was so transforming, so life-changing to fly in space. He said, “I’d come back with one dollar and live the rest of my life on Social Security.” Of course he is not close to that.

Planning for the future

TSR: Well, there are a lot of people who want to join him. So are you guys talked about people spending less than a hundred thousand dollars through a lottery?

Urie: Yes, that is in the works.

TSR: George’s line of work?

Urie: That is their line of work. I am intensely interested in every facet of this, but I just cannot do it all. I have to focus. I have an employment contract. I am doing what it says in my contract.

TSR: There is a lot to do.

Urie: I came here not to build a vehicle, to build a company. I want to build a fresh new aerospace company that does its engineering like the Skunk Works. And not just a vehicle.

TSR: So what is going to happen to the engineering team once you have a flying vehicle?

Urie: That is very much on my mind. I like to think ahead and I can see that precipice coming up. We are going to bid on other programs. We are going to plan initiatives of our own: the next generation space tourist vehicle and we are going to start bidding on government programs.

TSR: So are you going to free up some IRAD [independent research and development] money for your team?

Urie: We do not have IRAD money yet, but once we have a revenue stream we will. Right now we are just carving out of our precious resources a little bit for bid and proposals. We’re going to be working in that direction.

A tour of Rocketplane

TSR: This is great! This is great. So want to show me around?

Urie: Sure. There’s not much to see since there’s nobody to see and the scopes are all dark [on Saturday] and I’m not going to arouse them. This is our design area. We are using Catia Version 5, because it’s really superb at doing solids and compound curve surfaces. So we are using Catia V5.

These are typical of our offices. The Chief Designer. Our HR specialist. We give her an office with a closable door. That’s my business manager. I have him right next door. He is my money man. He is program control.

TSR: Keep your friends close and enemies closer?

Urie: Uh huh. He is my program control and everything.

TSR: So what are you keeping from the plane you are modifying?

Urie: We are keeping essentially the fuselage. Except for the very tail end of it and that’s it.

TSR: The jet engines?

Tito “told us about his experience. He said, ‘If I had 20 million and one dollar I would do it.’ It was so great. It was so transforming, so life-changing to fly in space.”

Urie: We will probably get some newer versions of the engines. We will get the landing gear from a later model Lear. Then there are some high-speed tires that are available. It is all off-the-shelf stuff, but it does not come all on the same airplane.

We have got a systems engineering guy who sits here. A safety engineer. An electrical. An electronics. This is a designer, a structural designer designing a wing. Here’s a designer who spends most of his time on the Catia scope designing the fuselage modification. Another designer who doubles as our weights guy. Another structures guy who doubles as a stress. He does both structural analysis and structural design. We have versatile people.

TSR: Who looks over their shoulder? So if you only have one guy doing wings, how do you know he is doing a good job?

Urie: I look over their shoulder. Their chief engineer looks over their shoulder. Everybody consults with everybody on everything.

This is kind of a war room where we keep status charts. Everything in here is a work in progress. It is stuff that is being argued about. We spent a lot of time interchanging information. We spend a lot of time together confabbing. Those are very well structured meetings. If you call a meeting, you better have something concrete to discuss, to present, to offer.

We have established a well-defined baseline now. So anybody who has another idea has to bring it in formally as an engineering change request. It gets scrutinized and argued about and kicked around and analyzed. Some of them make it and some of them do not. We are trying to do this in a rigorous manner.

TSR: So who are you going to put down the block?

Urie: Probably the temps we hire. We have got one guy who we have dragged in from the Skunk Works. He does phenomenal work. He is by practice an industrial designer, but he loves designing aircrafts and space ships. Put him with a couple of savvy engineers, you go so much faster than you can with a computer. It is phenomenal.

TSR: So there is room for old-fashioned draftsmen still.

Urie: Yeah. It takes a lot less time to program him.

TSR: So what do you do then? Scan the drawing?

Urie: Yeah, we can, or we could just learn from it. He helps us visualize concepts. He can do that in a day or less, that drawing. So somebody says, “What if we put the engines here in a V-tail.” Blah, blah, blah, “and the LOX tanks in the wing root.” So he will lay it out for you. You say, “I don’t like that.” You know, it does not bother him at all.

TSR: So you have got right now a plan with a complete layout of how it is going to work. But you will move stuff around as engineers say, “Hey it’ll work better this way.”

Urie: “The balance is better. We could put the batteries in the tail.” That kind of thing. These are later projects that we are thinking about.

TSR: How many would this carry?

Urie: I forget. This design, I think he has a passenger module that fits in here or a cargo. Plus he’s got some passenger room with windows in the roof.

TSR: I saw in the front room that you are going to have some cargo doors. That is this one, but not on the first one.

“We are going to bid on other programs. We are going to plan initiatives of our own: the next generation space tourist vehicle and we are going to start bidding on government programs.”

Urie: Not on the first one. These are later ones. Here is something… see, he just started out with a sketch. This is a really big ship that we are thinking about. He started out with a Leonardo da Vinci sketch. Then he gets out his tools and does a proper technical illustration. There’s still room for this.

TSR: I would not have known it. I would have thought everything is computers now.

Urie: No. We use them when they help. We go around them when they do not.

This is a programmer manager level guy. He can do anything we hand him. He came over from the Army at Huntsville, from Redstone. These are our two young masters degrees. An aerodynamicist and a thermodynamicist who doubles in propulsion.

TSR: So a lot of people wearing two hats here?

Urie: This guy is just an ace aerodynamicist and a computer hacker. And then we have a physicist who does absolutely anything.

TSR: So there are a lot of things that nobody else knows that he has to learn?

Urie: Yep. We have two more over here. Cubicles occupied by our principal structures analyst. This is kind of our test planning ground. Flight test planning. This is Mitch’s office. He is here part of the time. He is in California part of the time. He has an office at home there, does some of his work there.

[Here is the] chief engineer. And the manufacturing manager.

TSR: What is his role? Does he help manage testing?

Urie: He is the director of the flight system, as I call it. The program is going to edge his direction as it goes to flight.

TSR: I see, so he is going to work with the testing guy to build the test, get the test plan, get it tested.

Urie: That is right. The pilot’s input into the flight station and the aerodynamics.

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