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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Space Startup Rocketplane Fails to Launch


Rocketplane's suborbital spacecraft, the XP, glides above Earth in this rendering.
Image courtesy of Rocketplane Global

In the hypercompetitive world of commercial spaceflight, you need deep pockets just to stay in the game.

That's why some customers and investors are losing confidence in Rocketplane, which spent 2007 getting outflanked by better-funded competitors and being buffeted by bad publicity -- instead of launching its first suborbital flight, as the company had promised just a few years earlier.

In October 2004, when Reda Anderson plunked down her deposit and made the first reservation to be flown to the edge of space, she had a reasonable expectation that she'd be the first civilian "pioneer" (she dislikes the term "tourist") to take that ride. She signed up with the company that was then called Rocketplane Limited, which hoped to be the first to market with commercial spaceflights in 2007.

Now Anderson is quietly checking out other companies that could get her off the ground sooner.

"Rocketplane is plan A, absolutely," Anderson told Wired.com. "But there's always a plan B."

Rocketplane has suffered largely from the scope of its ambition: It tackled both the suborbital tourist market and the NASA-servicing orbital market at the same time, and tried to do it all without the benefit of a billionaire backer, like Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson. While all of the companies in the young commercial space industry have experienced delays and setbacks, Rocketplane's current position seems shakier than most.

At the Space Access conference in Phoenix on the last weekend of March, panelists called the rush toward the first space tourism flight a "horse race" with two clear leaders: the well-financed Virgin and the scrappy but impressive Xcor Aerospace, which announced the design for its small suborbital vehicle two weeks ago. Almost as an afterthought, panelists mentioned the other companies in the pack: Rocketplane, Armadillo Aerospace and the secretive Blue Origin.

The CEO of Rocketplane, George French, declined to comment on the challenges faced by his company, or on its progress in raising investment money to build its suborbital vehicle. The company has publicly stated that it still expects to start commercial flights in 2010 or 2011, the same time frame now being quoted by Virgin and Xcor.

But Joe Pistritto, one of the Space Access panelists, doesn't seem enthusiastic about Rocketplane's prospects. An angel investor who made his money in the early days of the dot-com boom, Pistritto has a large stake in Xcor, and also owns a small amount of stock in Rocketplane. He said that Virgin and Xcor are viewed as leaders because of two things: money and reputation.

"I don't think anyone worries that Virgin is going to run out of money," Pistritto said. "And Xcor has built up a really good track record, partly because the company has a reputation for underpromising and overdelivering."

While French has served as the company's angel investor, he isn't in the same financial league as Branson or Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. French has instead turned to the market, vigorously promoting his company as a sound investment for angel or institutional investors.

Commentators on the emerging commercial space industry, which is often dubbed "NewSpace," say that in contrast to Xcor, Rocketplane's reputation has been hurt by ambitious pronouncements that don't come true. "In the past, they've been good at promoting the sizzle, and not so good at showing they have the steak," said Charles Lurio, a former aerospace engineer who writes a space newsletter, The Lurio Report.

Like many other outside observers, Lurio said he respects French's fundraising abilities, and believes the company has a plausible design for its suborbital tourism vehicle, the XP. "But I would be very cautious if I was an investor," Lurio said. "I would have to see an awful lot of working hardware to be convinced."

Chuck Lauer, Rocketplane's vice president of business development, told a Space Access audience that the XP's development was delayed by more than a year while the company focused on a NASA contract for an orbital vehicle to resupply the space station. Rocketplane lost its contract in September 2007 because it hadn't met milestones in private fundraising.

Many NewSpace observers say the company can't be entirely faulted for that failure. They note that NASA never provided assurance that it would buy a certain number of flights from Rocketplane, and also publicly announced its purchase of future flights on the Russian spacecraft Soyuz, essentially souring Rocketplane's pitch to investors at a crucial moment in May 2007.

Rocketplane's suborbital program, too, has been slowed, as the company announced a new design for the vehicle in October 2007. The previous design would have used a commercially available Learjet as a base; now the company plans to build the airframe from scratch.

Whether or not the company lost credibility in the marketplace because of these developments, the delays killed its momentum, and caused several key players to depart. The former astronaut John Herrington, who was expected to be the XP's pilot, resigned from Rocketplane in January 2008.

"My plan was to be flying by 2007," Herrington said. "The reason it didn't happen was all due to funding. You can only put so much time and effort into something before you decide it's time to move on."

Original here

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