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Rocketplane XP redesign
The revised Rocketplane XP design (above) is intended ultimately to be more cometitive in the emerging suborbital space tourism conference. (credit: Rocketplane Global)

Rocketplane reset

The last several weeks have not provided Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Inc. with much good news. In October, NASA announced that it was terminating its funded Space Act agreement with the company’s Rocketplane Kistler subsidiary after the company failed to meet several milestones as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Those missed milestones were linked to Rocketplane’s problems raising up to a half-billion dollars in private money, which had been blamed on everything from tough market conditions to mixed messages about COTS being sent by NASA itself. In any case, the loss of the COTS agreement and the nearly $175 million in NASA funding the company did not bode well for the future of Rocketplane.

Lost in all the discussion and debate about Rocketplane Kistler was the status of the company’s suborbital vehicle subsidiary, Rocketplane Global, whose efforts to develop the suborbital XP spaceplane predated the 2006 acquisition of the assets of the former Kistler Aerospace by several years. The company’s overall focus on the orbital K-1 vehicle for the COTS program appeared to cause the suborbital program to languish. However, the company used the recent X Prize Cup in New Mexico to unveil a new design for the Rocketplane XP, one that the company believes is better suited to compete in the emerging suborbital space tourism market.

Farewell, Learjet

The biggest change about the new design, unveiled during an X Prize press conference at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico on October 26, is that it abandons the Learjet fuselage that had been at the core of the previous design. For years the company had emphasized this approach as an innovative way to cut vehicle development costs, even though many other aspects of the vehicle design, including wings and tail, had to be redeveloped. The taper of the fuselage at both the nose and tail, one company official noted, made it difficult to pack in all the vehicle components, and left the vehicle with room for only four people, including the pilot, half the capacity of Virgin Galactic’s planned SpaceShipTwo.

“Early one, we realized we would have to modify extensively the Learjet fuselage, almost 95 percent,” said Rocketplane Global program manager Dave Faulkner. “It was clear then it didn’t make sense to stick with that.” The new design replaces the Learjet fuselage with a new design, which, like the Learjet, is made of aluminum. The design, said Faulkner, allows for “better packaging of systems” and effectively adds another row of seating to the XP, increasing its capacity to six people.

“Early one, we realized we would have to modify extensively the Learjet fuselage, almost 95 percent,” said Rocketplane’s Faulkner. “It was clear then it didn’t make sense to stick with that.”

Another significant change is the replacement of the original Learjet CJ610 jet engines with more powerful J85 jet engines, like those used on the T-38 aircraft (as well as White Knight, the carrier aircraft built by Scaled Composites for its SpaceShipOne suborbital vehicle). The J85 engines, according to Faulkner, will allow the XP to fly to about 12,000 meters altitude, twice that of the previous design, before igniting its rocket engine, improving its performance. The XP will continue to use a single AR-36 rocket engine, derived from the sustainer engine used in older variants of the Atlas launch vehicle, currently being developed by Polaris Propulsion.

The new XP has several other design tweaks. The distinctive V-tail in the previous design has been replaced with a more conventional T-tail design that is “lighter, safer and provides more aerodynamic control,” according to the company. The XP will also have new landing gear derived from that used on the F-5 fighter and developed by Loud Engineering and Manufacturing. The overall design changes increase the weight of the vehicle by 10 percent over the previous Learjet-derived design, but with a much greater increase in performance and capacity.

The vehicle’s interior will also get a significant redesign. Rocketplane has brought in designer Frank Nuovo, who has worked with companies ranging from BMW to Nokia, to develop the vehicle’s interior. “We wanted to bring onboard somebody who knew how to bring to the passenger experience the same level of engineering that we’re putting into the vehicle,” Faulkner said. That design work is ongoing, with only some rough sketches available, but “it certainly gives you that feel of a space vehicle,” he said.

Nuovo, perhaps best known for designing the Vertu line of luxury mobile phones, later described to reporters his interest in working with Rocketplane. “This is an extraordinary opportunity to be at the leading edge of something and create a memorable experience,” he said, adding that his work with Rocketplane is a “passion project” for him. “I have a lot to bring, knowing luxury, knowing technology, knowing interface, and knowing comfort, so it’s really exciting.”

Those who do get to experience that interior, though, will at least initially be missing out one luxury of spaceflight: the ability to float around the cabin in weightlessness. John Herrington, Rocketplane’s chief test pilot and a former NASA astronaut who flew on the STS-113 shuttle mission in 2002, said that decision was intended to reduce the risk of disorientation and injury. “From a safety perspective, I don’t want to let anyone out of their seat,” he said. “I don’t want people out there bouncing around, kicking around.” Down the road, though, he said it might be possible to remove two of the seats in the cabin and allow the other two people to float during the zero-g phase of the flight.

Economics and competition

A ride on the XP will initially cost customers $250,000, according to Faulkner, dropping to $200,000 after the first 50 “Founders” flights. Rocketplane also plans to charge more for the seat next to the pilot, given its prime location and enhanced view. Faulkner said that test flights would begin in 2010, assuming the company was able to raise the money needed to develop the XP in the near future.

Faulker was less forthcoming, though, about exactly how much money Rocketplane needed to raise to build the XP. “Well, it’s more than I’ve got in my pocket,” he said. “We’re talking with investors right now, and there’s a lot them who are interested.”

He also declined to discuss just how many people were working on the XP project at the moment, saying that a “core team” had been in place to work on the redesigned concept despite earlier reports that many XP engineers had been pulled off the project at times in the past to work on the K-1 project. Faulkner did say that over 200,000 man-hours of work—over 100 man-years—had gone into the project over the last 18 months, suggesting that several dozen people at the company and its contractors had been involved on at least a part-time basis.

“From a safety perspective, I don’t want to let anyone out of their seat,” said Herrington, on Rocketplane’s plans to keep people in their seats. “I don’t want people out there bouncing around, kicking around.”

Should Rocketplane get the XP vehicle into commercial service early next decade, it will face strong competition, first and foremost from Virgin Galactic. At the International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight (ISPS) in Las Cruces, New Mexico, October 24-25, Virgin’s Alex Tai said that the company had already collected $31 million in ticket revenue to date. While its flight schedule is uncertain, in part because of the continuing investigation into the July accident in Mojave that killed three Scaled Composites employees, its planned home base, Spaceport America in New Mexico, will open for business in early 2010. (A Rocketplane official said that one reason for the XP redesign was that it was unlikely the Learjet-based design could be first to market ahead of Virgin Galactic given Rocketplane’s focus on the orbital K-1 program, thus the need to focus on a more cost-effective design that could better compete with SpaceShipTwo and other vehicles.)

In addition to Virgin Galactic and other “NewSpace” companies currently designing suborbital vehicles, Rocketplane faces competition from a decidedly “OldSpace” company: European aerospace giant EADS Astrium, which made waves back in June when it announced its own suborbital spaceplane concept, modeled closely on the Rocketplane XP. Hugues Laporte-Weywada, senior vice president of Astrium, said during the ISPS that the company had attracted some interest in the concept despite Astrium’s own estimates that it will cost €1 billion to develop the vehicle. “We are confident in getting the funding,” he said. “The target is to gather this funding and start on the development as early as possible in 2008.”

Life after K-1?

The announcement of the XP redesign, though, threatened to be overshadowed by the saga of Rocketplane Kistler and the fallout from NASA’s decision to terminate its COTS agreement with the company. Rocketplane clearly wasn’t eager to talk about the situation: Faulkner declined to answer any questions about Rocketplane Kistler during the XP redesign announcement press conference, and Rocketplane CEO George French, while present at the ISPS, was unable to participate in two conference sessions where he was scheduled to appear because of other meetings.

When company officials did talk about the current situation, they emphasized that the company had agreements for $300 million of the $450 million the company was trying to raise in the private sector. However, Herrington, filling in for French on one panel, said that three key factors caused those investors to reconsider their plans: an agreement between NASA and the Russian space agency Roskosmos for the purchase of Progress and Soyuz flights to the station, unnamed NASA officials who spoke out against COTS, and a request for information issued by NASA for the next phase of the COTS program that, in the eyes of investors, did not appear to show a commitment by NASA towards purchasing cargo services.

Faulkner declined to say how much money the company needed to raise to develop the new XP. “Well, it’s more than I’ve got in my pocket.”

With NASA now holding a new competition to award the $174.7 million in COTS money now available with the termination of the original agreement with Rocketplane Kistler, it’s not clear whether Rocketplane will submit a proposal or take a different approach—which, according to one published report, could include legal action against NASA. If Rocketplane Kistler does re-enter the competition, they will face stiff competition, as a number of other companies that currently have unfunded COTS agreements with NASA are expected to submit proposals. One such company, SpaceDev, is so motivated to work on the proposal, company CEO Mark Sirangelo said at the ISPS, that after wildfires forced the company to evacuate its headquarters in suburban San Diego earlier in the month, a team set up shop in a trailer on the beach to continue working on their proposal.

NASA, at least officially, would welcome a new proposal from Rocketplane Kistler. “We think the concept is outstanding, with many, many good things about Rocketplane Kister’s technical concepts,” said Valin Thorn, deputy program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, which runs COTS. “We would not be surprised if we see it again in the competition.” Barring any such rejuvenation of the K-1, though, Rocketplane’s future seems to be squarely placed on the new and improved XP.