POSTED ON NOVEMBER 21, 2007:
The New Frontier
Planning your 2010 birthday party? For about $1 million, you and four daring friends can celebrate in space
Getting High. Of course, some intrepid soul has to pilot the experimental spaceplane, and that job falls to native Oklahoman, proud Chickasaw Nation member and former Space Shuttle pilot John B. Herrington.
When Connie Chung covered the Oklahoma City bombing, she effectively crippled her rising news career with her undisguised skepticism about local emergency responders being up to the task.
"Can the Oklahoma City Fire Department handle this?" she asked, clearly expecting horse-drawn covered wagons hauling water in wooden buckets to be the best this backwoods frontier country we call Oklahoma could offer in the way of fire-fighting and rescue efforts.
The typical Oklahoman was incredulous at Chung's ignorance, but her primitive "Old West" view of modern Oklahoma wasn't that far off from the misconception held by many others inhabiting the nation's more "cosmopolitan" population centers, where they actually think people here still live in teepees, ride horses to work and make their own home-churned butter from buffalo milk.
The misconception that Oklahoma is somehow stuck in the 19th century should, at long last, be pretty well obliterated by 2010, though.
That's when one group of Okies expects that its small fleet of spacecraft will be operational and open for business, making Oklahoma a global leader in private, commercial space flight, thereby putting a completely new spin on the state's perceived status as a "frontier territory."
Rocketplane Global, Inc., an Oklahoma City-based company of rocket scientists, visionaries and space cowboys, recently unveiled its retooled design for its eponymous space plane, which has been in development since 2004.
If a Learjet were to lay an egg after somehow mating with the Space Shuttle, the Rocketplane XP is what would likely emerge when it hatched.
"I guess you could say that's how it looks, but performance-wise, it's completely different," said Rocketplane, Inc. spokesman and long-time "final frontier" enthusiast George French III.
Being the avid devotee that he is of all things spaceworthy, French can speak volumes about Rocketplane XP's specs and performance capabilities.
"I caught the space bug when I was just 12 years old," he told UTW.
It started with a Christmas gift from his mother, to be shared with his father.
"She got us tickets to SpaceCamp in Huntsville, Alabama so we could take a father-son trip and spend some time together," said French.
There, he said, they both caught the aforementioned "space bug."
"After that, we've been into Star Wars and 2001: Space Odyssey. Stuff like that has always piqued our interest ever since," he said.
George French, Sr. was in the advertising business at the time, but the "space bug" he'd caught through the course of bonding with his son led him to invest in various aerospace companies.
He eventually acquired a controlling interest in Kistler Aerospace Corp., which then merged with Rocketplane, Inc.
The elder French is now the president and CEO of the company, where he and his son are part of a team working to turn boyhood fantasies into reality.
That team also includes program manager David Faulkner, who previously used the mechanical and aerospace engineering know-how he picked up at the University of Oklahoma to help Lockheed Martin develop fighter jets and hypersonic vehicles, winning a few awards for himself and for the company in the process.
Of course, some intrepid soul has to pilot the experimental spaceplane, and that job falls to native Oklahoman, proud Chickasaw Nation member and former Space Shuttle pilot John B. Herrington (talk about living out a boyhood fantasy . . . ).
Herrington was the first Native American in space, and to honor his heritage, he took a flag that had been presented to him by Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby on his 2002 mission.
As the younger French intimated, Herrington has a much more capable craft to pilot than what the Rocketplane rocket scientists were previously putting together.
Before they devised the current model, they were basing their design on the fuselage of a Learjet 25.
Eventually, they realized it would cost as much to modify the Learjet as it would to create a completely new design from whole cloth, and one that could perform better, at that, French explained.
The new-and-improved Rocketplane XP weighs less than the Learjet-based prototype, enabling it to outperform it.
"Weight is everything when you're trying to put something into space," said French.
The lighter fuselage enables the new model to carry the pilot and five passengers, as opposed to the old configuration that could only carry three passengers.
Also, the lighter weight combined with the new J-85 afterburner engines give the craft a greater thrust-to-weight ratio, which French said enables it to reach an altitude of 40,000 feet before the rockets are needed, compared to the older version's capacity for a mere 25,000-foot climb.
Another noticeable change is replacement of the old V-tail with a T-tail.
While it doesn't look as "spacey" as the old version in that regard, the T-tail weighs less and provides more stability than the previous model.
French said the planners at Rocketplane Global, Inc. expect that test flights will be completed by early 2010, and the two Rocketplane XPs in development will be ready for commercial use later that year.
That use will consist of "service payloads"--mostly by universities and corporations hiring the plane for zero-gravity scientific experiments, and for space tourists with the "right stuff."
At an average ticket price of $200,000 per individual trip, the "right stuff" in this case means having money to burn (hey--if space travel were cheap, everyone would be doing it).
That's only after the first 25 trips, though--which are called the "Founders Flights."
A ride on one of those trips will cost $250,000 a ticket, French said. In exchange for that considerable fortune, Rocketplane customers get a ride lasting 45 minutes to an hour.
French explained that the craft would take off from the spaceport in Burns Flat, Oklahoma, and it will be similar to any other commercial airplane take-off.
The real fun will begin when the Rocketplane XP reaches an altitude of 36,000 feet.
"Then, the pilot will execute a 3-G pull-up maneuver, pull up to 70 degrees and simultaneously turn off the afterburners and ignite the rocket," said French.
In that 70-second maneuver, he said, the craft will lose half its weight as it burns off its rocket fuel.
Within that minute-and-ten-second span of time, the spaceplane will have traveled about another 115,000 feet in altitude, and would continue on a ballistic course, peaking at about 330,000 feet--just beyond the so-called "edge of space," known in international aeronautic circles as the Karman Line, where earth's atmosphere ends and the rest of the universe begins.
During that three-to-four minute apogee, passengers would experience zero-gravity, French said.
After that, the Rocketplane XP would begin its descent.
French said it would, like the Space Shuttle, be able to glide back to terra firma at the Burns Flat spaceport, but the engines would have been reignited in case more than one pass at the runway is needed, or in case energy burn-off maneuvers are needed.
The Rocketplane XP was designed for a 24-hour turnaround, he said, but at the moment they're only planning on one flight per week "until we get a bunch of flights under our belts."
While space tourism is the immediate application for the Rocketplane XP, French said more practical point-to-point travel was something that might be possible by 2016, depending on how successful the business is after 2010.
Thus far, space tourism is a pretty new industry, as the Russians currently have a monopoly on the business, charging $30 million a trip.
That's all about to change, though.
Numerous other companies around the world are competing to create their own niches in the space tourism industry, but French said Rocketplane Global will likely be the first.
"Of course, I'm a little biased," he said.
In the worldwide commercial space race to be the first private corporation to put tourists in space, French said his company is "neck-and-neck" with Virgin Galactic, which is owned by the billionaire adventurer and reality-TV star, Sir Richard Branson.
While Rocketplane and Virgin Galactic are seemingly tied for first, French said a not-too-distant second place was held by Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
Several others, he said, are trailing far behind the Big Three.
Even with all of the talent comprising Rocketplane Global with roots in Oklahoma, the company could have set up shop anywhere.
So, why Oklahoma, of all places?
Winning the "O-Prize"--the Oklahoma Space Industry Tax Incentive, was a major incentive, French said, which was $18 million in transferable tax credits from the state, which was awarded to Rocketplane, Inc. on New Year's Eve, 2003.
The company sold it for $13 million, which provided quite a bit of capital for the development of the Rocketplane XP.
Another major draw, French said, was that "Oklahoma has the spaceport already developed and licensed and ready to go."
The spaceport in Burns Flat is operated by the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority--Oklahoma's own little version of NASA, created in 1999.
"It's really surprising, but people have no idea about this spaceport," said French.
"Right now, they're trying to get a spaceport developed and licensed in New Mexico because no one seems to know about this one," he said.
So, take that, Connie Chung.
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